After the recent death of Trish Keenan (vocalist for Broadcast), I started pulling out some old Broadcast albums and reading some tributes written by people who have worked with her. Bob Stanley (from the band Saint Etienne) reminisced about the many things they had shared regarding, art, music, and film. One of their shared exchanges happened to be Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, a film released in Czechoslovakia in 1970. I decided to give the film a glance considering it has a huge cult following and also seemed to embrace a lot of the things that interest me.
Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is a visual circus blending the fairytale element, vampirism, and witchery. The story is about a thirteen year old girl named Valerie who begins menstruating at the onset of the film. She is at the crossroads between childhood and adulthood. Director Jaromil Jires has weaved a story that addresses some heavy handed topics such as sex, death, incest and religious hypocrisy. There are plenty of articles and dissertations one can read that attempt to unmask the films meaning. The film was made during Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia and it’s laden with symbolic imagery. The film is beautifully shot and will leave an afterimage on your memory for days after viewing.
Valerie is not a cohesive story. You will need to turn the part of your brain off that likes things to be chronological and ordered. As long as you don’t expect the film to make sense, you might actually enjoy it for its strengths. Jires is more concerned with the visual aspect of film than with storytelling.
After Valeria picks a daisy and spots her own menstruation blood on its pedals, she is off to her room for a nap. We the audience might assume what follows could be Valerie dreaming. This would certainly make a strong argument considering the films lack of a narrative plot. We then see Valerie’s reflection through ripples in the water. She spies on young voluptuous blondes bathing in a lake. The women kiss and giggle while one woman puts a wiggling fish down her shirt, letting it slide between her breasts (because that’s fun!).
I should not go any further without mentioning Valerie’s magic earrings. Valerie or her earrings seem to hold some power. In the beginning they are stolen from her while she sleeps. Later the earrings are returned to her by a boy, who is never clearly defined as her lover or her brother. The boy is tortured by a sinister man who plays various roles in the film. This man is obviously a monster; he goes by many names but primarily is called the constable, or the bishop. He intentionally bears a resemblance to the vampire of Murnau’s Nosferatu (with his bald white head and pointed ears). The bishop wants Valerie’s earrings and punishes the boy for not successfully stealing them. But the boy doesn’t need to worry too much because Valeria is able to free her lover (or possible brother) on the few occasions where he is bound. She simply touches the instruments that hold him down and he is free. She also manages to use the earrings to cure her friend Hedvika of vampirism with a simple kiss (and some girl on girl action).
The missionaries are in town and staying with Valerie and her grandmother. Again we are reminded not to trust the holy people in this movie. The head missionary is a bearded hairy man who makes a visit to Valerie’s bedroom in middle of the night. He tells her she is beautiful and begins making the moves on her (oddly enough one of the funniest scenes in the movie). The naughty missionary rips open his shirt to display a necklace of sharp teeth while doing a sexy dance. He has Valerie half naked and cornered. It’s not made clear what happens after he kisses her and the bells go off. The chime of the glockenspiel makes us aware of the magic earrings and their powers at hand. Valerie is frozen and almost statuesque as the creepy missionary backs away in horror. Later he claims she is a witch and attempts to burns her at the stake, but she is saved once again by those magic earrings.
On several occasions, another film with similar themes was brought to mind The Company of Wolves by Neil Jordan (The Crying Game and Interview with a Vampire). Jordan’s film is based around a girl who is dreaming in her bed. Where Valerie uses the budding sexuality and vampire priest to tell its tale, Company blends a female’s sexual awakening around Little Red Riding Hood and other tales of lycanthropy. Both films are stunning to watch and possess a shared focus on a young girl’s naiveté being washed away in an adult world full of monsters. So it is to Trish and Bob that I owe thanks for opening my eyes to this film. I only hope this review peaks your interest to set aside some time to watch it. It is the definition of artsy; however, it is a well crafted piece of artsy cinema. The movie was hard to find for awhile, but now it has been released on DVD by Facet Studios in 2004. You can get it on Netflix.
Steven Michael Quinn