Valerie and Her Week of Wonders
Reviewed by Aaron Cutler

Produced by Jiří Becka; directed by Jaromil Jireš; written by Jireš and Ester Krumbachová, with dialogue by Jiří Musil; based on the novel by Vítězslav Nezval; cinematography by Jan Čuřík; edited by Josef Valušiak; production design by Krumbachová; art direction by Jan Oliva; costume design by Eva Lackingerová; music by Luboš Fišer; conducted by František Belfín; makeup by Ladislav Bacílek; sound by Emil Poledník; set design by Josef Calta; starring Jaroslava Schallerová, Helena Anýžová, Petr Kopřiva, Jiří Prýmek, Jan Klusák, and Alena Stojáková. Blu-ray and DVD, color, 76 min., Czech dialogue with optional English subtitles, 1970. A Criterion Collection release.

The meanings of events are often bewilderingly obscure in Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, yet the film’s central action is crystal clear: a young girl becomes a woman. The titular pubescent orphan (played by Jaroslava Schallerová) of Czech director’s Jaromil Jireš’s 1970 film wanders throughout her nineteenth-century small town amidst a wedding party’s revelers and a score of virginal girls while coming into contact with odd characters. They include a malevolent, vampire-fanged being named Polecat (Jiří Prýmek), a lascivious Catholic priest named Gracián (Jan Klusák), and an earnest, bespectacled young would-be savior named Eaglet (Petr Kopřiva) whom she finds to be in constant need of rescue himself. Valerie’s relations to all of them keep changing within a verdant, ominous realm that might belong entirely to an ongoing dream. As part of her maturation, she—along with viewers—must come to terms with her confusion.

Jireš made his third feature shortly after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, and along with it, an effective end to nationwide liberalization efforts known as the Prague Spring. Over the previous decade, he had formed part of a small group of filmmakers whose oft-censored, frequently melancholy and sardonic works are today thought of as belonging to a movement called the Czechoslovak New Wave—a movement whose state-sponsored existence was also ending. It is tempting to understand Valerie and Her Week of Wonders in allegorical terms as a rendering of a period under threat.

Polecat (Jirí Prýmek) and Valerie (Jaroslava Schallerová) in Valerie and Her Week of Wonders.

The film’s shape-shifting movement, however, constantly breaks with any one reading, as the British film scholar Peter Hames (author of the book The Czechoslovak New Wave) claims in a fifteen-minute interview included on the Criterion Collection disc. This release offers a splendid 4K digital restoration of the 35mm original camera negative that is most certainly the best-looking and -sounding version of Jireš’s film available on commercial home video.

The disc also comes with several illuminating extras, which, in addition to Hames’s overview-style discussion of the film, include a mood-setting booklet essay written by New York Review of Books editor Jana Prikryl; short 2006 video interviews with actors Jaroslava Schallerová and Jan Klusák in which they share respectively positive and negative impressions of the Valerie shoot; and an alternate version of Valerie with the original soundtrack substituted for a psych-folk feature-length score recorded for the film in 2007 by a commissioned ten-member musical group called the Valerie Project.

The innately problematic endeavor of creating a silent film score for a sound film (acknowledged as such in additional supplementary interviews with the Valerie Project’s commissioner and head musician) nonetheless brings into focus a few crucial aspects of the film. Despite its Gothic beauty and disquiet, the Valerie Project’s score ultimately reinforces the irreplaceable wondrousness of Luboš Fišer’s haunting original, whose notes seem to reach out toward Valerie like thin, delicate fingers. Yet, the particular violence of the new score—whose whirrs, cracks, and crashes frequently occur at seeming odds with the film’s plot—succeeds in accurately presenting Valerie and Her Week of Wonders as a piece of psychological abstraction whose incidents, like those of many great silent horror films, exist outside time and beyond the realm of comprehensible human motives. The Valerie Project brings out qualities inherent to the film.

Jaroslava Schallerová in Valerie and Her Week of Wonders.

Jireš and his screenwriting partner Ester Krumbachová, in originally writing Valerie, retained much of the dialogue from communist and surrealist writer Vítěszlav Nezval’s 1945 source novel, which the author wrote in tribute to the “ancient tales, superstitions, and romances” (per its preface) that he had read as a child. Yet they made some crucial alterations to the book’s plot. They lowered Valerie’s age to thirteen years from the novel’s seventeen, heightening a sense of purity under encroachment. They also changed a key detail of the novel, whose action is set in motion by Valerie’s first menstruation. This is elided in the film; instead, Valerie’s tinkling crystal earrings are mysteriously stolen and then just as enigmatically returned to her, leading everything that follows to seem potentially like events brought to her mind.

Jaroslava Schallerová in Valerie and Her Week of Wonders.

Many of the film’s shots are focused upon Valerie in gauzy close-up, and her impassive reactions to the strange happenings around her leave the extent to which she is imagining them ambiguous. It is unsurprising that Jireš took a subjective approach to his film’s storytelling. Peter Hames claims in his interview that Jireš was interested in experimenting with narrative in his early films, an argument that can be pointed to say that they portrayed the disjunction between individuals and society by blurring the boundaries between psychological and social realities.

In the filmmaker’s first feature, The Cry (1963)—often cited as the first film of the Czechoslovak New Wave—a working-class married couple’s daily routines are invaded by off-screen calls and flashes of light that then vanish abruptly, as though beaten back by the urban world. In his second feature, The Joke (1969), a film adaptation of Mila Kundera’s eponymous novel, past and present blur together for a man whose life as a social exile continues without respite from pain for several years after he is caught making an anti–Communist Party remark. 

In Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, a child exists in conflict with her surroundings as someone who cannot rely on any information that adults give her, to the point that Valerie’s own pale grandmother (Helena Anýžová), with whom she has long lived, sometimes appears as a vampire looking to devour the girl for the sake of gaining eternal youth. While Valerie’s head space exists as a possible point of refuge, it also comes to register as being as penetrable as the deserted buildings in which she seeks shelter from approaching assailants, and indeed, as her own body, of whose sexuality she grows more aware with each false protector’s gaze.

Jirí Prýmek in Valerie and Her Week of Wonders.

A primal shock at discovering one’s trust broken can similarly be found throughout the most valuable extras contained on this Criterion Collection release: Jireš’s first three short films, all of them realized while he was still a university-level film student, and each of which is a wonderful standalone achievement that also beckons toward Valerie. His debut film Uncle (1959) stages a gentle duet between an earnest, cradle-bound young boy and a thief who, upon being discovered in his bedroom at night, attempts to pass for the toddler’s relative. The subsequent Footprints (1960) quietly details the pressures placed upon a small group of rural Czechoslovak family members confronted both with the choice of caring for a wounded Russian war refugee who has stumbled into their home and the fact of his having left a trail in the surrounding snow for nearby townspeople to discover. The third short film, The Hall of Lost Footsteps (1960), takes a more experimental approach than its forbears through an intermingling of telegraphed news flashes concerning modern warfare and sketch-like images of varied Czech citizens who might unknowingly be imperiled by it.

These films and Valerie show people coming of age as a way of asking what one should do when one becomes aware of evil. For Valerie—a girl confronted by monsters that take on human shapes and vice versa—a frequent solution is to flee. As time passes, though, the film shows her making efforts to reach out to fellow innocents under threat like herself, whether it be through unshackling a young man who has been enchained by his cruel feudal master, or through offering her body with warmth and generosity to an older girl as a cure for a vampire’s bite. Over the story’s course, she moves from the margins of her community to its center as tormented characters gather around her and fade away. She endures by losing fear of all things—including herself.

Jireš continued to reside in Czechoslovakia and then, eventually, in the Czech Republic following the making of Valerie. He pursued a long career in film and television until shortly before his 2001 death. His third feature initially circulated little, but over time it has taken on the status of an indelible cult object about the process of growing up. The Criterion Collection honors the film with a release that is memorable in many aspects, among them its evocative cover art.

Aaron Cutler keeps a website, The Moviegoer.

 To purchase Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, click here.

Copyright © 2015 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XLI, No. 1