Thursday, June 25, 2009

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders
Original Title: Valerie a týden divu
Directed by: Jarmil Jires
Czechoslovakia, 1970
Horror/Fantasy /Drama, 77min
Distributed by: Redemption

A young woman awakens from a strange dream and realises during a walk in the courtyard that she’s having her first period and becoming a woman. This starts off a series of events that plunge he into great trouble as her youthful blood draws vampires to her and soon she learns that the Vampires are more than just uninvited guests!

You could say Buñuel-ish or Jodorowsky-ish, but that would be an insult to Czech director Jaromil Jires and his amazing surreal horror story adaption of Vitezslav Nezval's book Valerie's and Her Week of Wonders, about young Valerie’s first days as a woman. Strange, sometimes incomprehensive and very stylish as the doe eyed Valerie [Jaroslava Schallerov] takes her first steps into womanhood is filled with randy priests, lustful vampires, shocking family constellations that twist and turn though out the movie making it a great piece of early seventies art house horror. With a storyline reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland and imagery that works like a strange blend of Jean Rollin’s sexy vampires and Herzog’s Nosferatu (although Herzog shot his nine years later so it’s most likely he who was inspired by the blue flesh tone of the master vampire) It’s a strange tale told merely through what feels randomly assembled happenings as the movies starts of with a really poetic and delicate string of imagery showing Valerie becoming a woman. I call it poetic and delicate, because it is just that, and could have been much more provocative, or disturbing, but Jires does the right thing here and keeps it more as a visual reference and not an exploitative trick, which draws you in much easier than being explicit from the start. And the incoherent imagery and scenes start to make sense once you get past their initial visual glory and start to puzzle the narrative together. Slowly but safely the characters are all introduced. Eagle, the young boy who steals Valerie’s earrings several times during the movie, Valerie’s Grandmother, her best friend Hedwig, and the main antagonist, The Evil Constable, who shifts character throughout the movie and is also the Black Bishop, the Vampire, Richard and possibly Valerie’s grandfather and Lover of her Grandmother too!

Keep an eye on Valerie’s earrings, as they are important throughout the movie and play an important role in the story. Not to mention the symbolism they portray. The earrings where heirlooms left for Valerie by her mother, and the searching for the earrings over and over again, throughout the movie is a metaphor for Valerie’s search for the truth about her family. They are once again stolen by eagle and then he produces the pearls telling Valerie to swallow them when she is in trouble, and they will help her. Needless to say they help her out of several creepy situations, adding yet another dreamish surreal feeling to the movie.

Her grandmother tells her not to wear them as they are not suited for a little child. Valerie looks at her and tells grandma that she’s no longer a little girl, but a woman as she got her first period yesterday. From here on the Grandmother becomes obsessed with regaining her youth, desperately trying to seduce the priest that visits them, so that she can feel desired once again. Unlike the last visit he made only a year ago, he rejects her as he has his eyes set on young Valerie and Grandma ends up making a deal with the Vampire, who seems to have at one time been the previous owner of the house that Valerie and her Grandmother live in. She gives him back the house and he promises to restore her youth. This is done very symbolically when Valerie’s best friend Hedwig is married to an older bloke in the village, before he has a chance to consummate the marriage, the now vampiric embodiment of Constable and Grandma, sneak up and bite the young virgin in the neck, draining her of her life-force. Grandma now becomes a revitalized young woman and moves back into the house with Valerie claiming to be her long lost aunt. This theme of feasting on the young and innocence returns later on when Valerie goes to bed with Hedwig for a lesbian snog, bringing Hedwig back to her youthful self through the process. You could also be as bold to state that it's early feminism as Valerie rejects all the male characters making advances on her and instead submits to the gentle caress of her girl friend.

The Vampire grows old and weak, and in her youthful naivety Valerie pities him, but he has concocted a sinister plan together with the now reincarnated Grandmother to take not only Valerie’s but also Eagle's life so that old couple can live on in new forms. Valerie starts to learn the terrible truth of her origin, her mother married to the Bishop didn’t die at all, but was forced away from the house and village by the Vampire, and on top of that, her love and platonic boyfriend Eagle is Valerie’s brother! This is also why Valerie keeps seeing visions of her father all the time! She needs to be reunited with her family to find peace in her new phase in life.

It comes as no shock to that the movie is riddled with nods at coming of age tales and filled to the brim with symbolism as the entire movie is all about the conflict between youth and aging, new and old, life and death…

The original score by Luboš Fišer and Jan Klusák, was released on CD just a few years ago and has inspired much of the work by British Electro band The Broadcast. The album Ha Ha Sound from 2003 is the most obvious with a track being called Valerie. The movie is also said to have inspired Angela Carter who wrote the screenplay for Neil Jordan’s 1984 movie A Company of Wolves which utilizes the same themes, womanhood and coming of age.

Valerie and Her Week of Wonder is a perfect example of how European filmmakers totally master their crafts elegantly blending horror and eroticism to a perfect cocktail of Stylish cinema. Jires never goes too far, but stays just on the line between art house and exploitation which makes Valerie and Her Week of Wonder a definitive jewel of the genre that definitely deserves a spot in every cineasts DVD collection.

Full screen 4:3. Unfortunately the Redemption print isn’t the best quality, but to their credit they did make sure that the movie got distribution, even in the days of video it was one of their catalogue titles. Second Run DVD have on the other hand re-issued the movie where the transfer has undergone print restoration, new subtitling and an improved audio track has been added. So the Second Run DVD with it's extras (An Essay by Peter Hames, introduction/interview with film historian Micheal Brooke and an interview with lead actress Jaroslava Schallerová) and improved image and audio is the one you should go with.

Dolby Stereo 2.0 Czech language, English subtitles burned into the print,

There are not many extras that have anything to do with the film, but there is a trailer gallery (Renato Polselli’s Black Magic Rites and Jean Rollin’s The Shiver of the Vampire), a Still gallery (which painfully obviously are all frame grabs), and a music video for Italian Goth/Metal band Cadaveria produced and released on “Triple Silence” the record label owned by the Redemption team. Finally there’s the pathetic Video Art gallery which only has two images of the Facets US DVD sleeve, and the UK Redemption sleeve.

Here's the Second Run DVD trailer for you to enjoy!

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