Revisiting old classics, discovering hidden gems and exploring the contemporary movie scene: every month, Kafkadesk’s CineClub brings you new insights and expert film reviews of the greatest treasures of Central European cinema. This week: Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (Valerie a týden divů, 1970), by Jaromil Jireš.
Rapturously beautiful, disturbingly sensual, and strangely frightening, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is an intoxicating blend from Czech New Wave legend Jaromil Jireš. It is a surrealist horror where reality and identity are fluid, yet the film has a dreamlike logic where it all makes kind of sense while you’re watching it. Like so many dreams, the more you try to remember on waking, the more it slips from your grasp…
That was my first experience of the film. It took me a year to write something about it because when I first watched it, I realised that I’d seen something very special. I just couldn’t quite define what I’d seen. It probably didn’t help that I forgot a key detail – our young protagonist, Valerie (Jaroslava Schallerová), is encountering her first period.
It occurs early on and provides one of the iconic images of the film – a droplet of bright fresh blood on the head of a daisy – but the moment was lost to me almost immediately in the subsequent whirl of ravishing imagery, potent symbolism, ethereal beauty and earthy sensuality. Luboš Fišer’s score is also transportive, whisking you away to a fantasy realm.
On second viewing, I was able to nail down the basic plot. Valerie lives with her stern grandma (Helena Anýzová) and, from the day of her first period, the girl is haunted by the sinister spectre of the black-cloaked Constable (Jirí Prýmek), who has designs on both Valerie’s budding body and her pair of magic earrings. Valerie also attracts the unwanted attention of the creepy local priest, Gracian (Jan Klusák), and throughout she is assisted by a handsome young man called Orlik (Petr Kopriva) and her earrings, which help get her out of tight scrapes like attempted rape and getting burnt at the stake.
Later, Valerie discovers that her grandmother is in the thrall of the Constable (who is also known as Polecat and Richard), who was once her lover. Grandma turns out to be a vampire, and sucking the blood of young brides restores her youth and vitality…
That brief outline does absolutely nothing to convey the full experience of watching Valerie and her Week of Wonders. Itis maddeningly elliptical at times, but even when the events on screen are surreal, the individual scenes feel like they make narrative sense.
In terms of atmosphere, it reminded me of Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, where a primaeval supernatural force within the rock is awoken by the schoolgirls’ burgeoning sexuality and spirits them away. It also has similarly sumptuous soft-focus cinematography and tender score, so I’d be curious to find out if Weir took any inspiration from Valerie.
This is easily one of the most gorgeous movies I’ve ever seen, set in a time that seems to be simultaneously medieval and the early 20th century. Even if the story proves elusive, the film is so beautiful to simply gaze at that you likely won’t care.
In between my first and second viewings of Valerie, I saw a little-seen indie gem, Cold November. It is the story of a young girl who, on her 12th birthday, is taken out into the woods by her family to hunt deer. This rite of passage coincides with her first period, and in one scene she hangs a used sanitary towel to attract the bucks.
This scene helped me out on my second viewing of Valerie, because now I understood why everyone in the film is sniffing around after her. Now I noticed that the two men most drawn to her are named after predators – Polecat and Orlik (Eaglet). While she was safe as a child before, the scent of her blood now drives the animals in the village crazy. They are all coming for her.
That is why the droplet on the daisy is such key symbolism that was lost on me the first time – in many old myths and legends the flower represents innocence and purity, and now it is tainted by her menstrual blood.Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is packed with such symbolism. You could pause it at any point and take a deep dive into all the hidden meanings and metaphors, and come back up with something different each time. Or, you could just bliss out to it.
By Lee Adams
Lee is a writer and film critic living in Brno, Czech Republic. He studied film at university but dropped out halfway through because his tutor was always skiving off. He spent the next two decades using his half-education to passionately consume and write about movies. He has written for several outlets across the web, including the late-lamented Way Too Indie. In 2018 he founded Czech Film Review, approaching the cinema of his adopted home country from the perspective of a knowledgeable outsider.