Valerie And Her Week Of Wonders (1970) – Duality Through Sound and Vision.
Jaromil Jireš’ Valerie And Her Week Of Wonders (1970) is a cornucopia of images and sound. Its vision is of a complex blossoming of sexuality amidst the visual and thematic realisations of a Freudian dreamscape, driven primarily by the lack of understanding and misinterpretation caused by social naivety. The narrative rarely ascends to more than a fleeting fancy and Jireš makes certain he causes as much dizzying symbolism and hyperactive madness as possible during the film’s running time. Made in 1970, Valerie represents a cornerstone in Czech cinema where themes, visuals and ideas were matching the current western trends and movements thanks to the shared (if only temporary) free thinking freedom of the counter-culture era.
This is, of course, balanced with the unique feel that Czech film (post new-wave) can attain to and, though Valerie is not strictly part of its national new wave canon (in spite of its creator’s importance in that movement), it has grown a loving and attentive group of devotees of its own special accord. Even for the filmmaker himself, Valerie seems to stick out from his own catalogue of work. To understand the meanings behind this complex and endlessly analysable film, the visual element simply must be broken down and separated to compartmentalise several of its key factors. But doing so in itself is a difficult, intricate task; one which requires some sort of translation key. The key in question, one that allows the opening of the Pandora’s Box of thematic content, is Luboš Fišer’s musical score and this essay aims to assess the key themes in the context of their audio-visual connotations.
Before such analysis can begin, the basic narrative structure of Valerie first needs some attention. Like many of the films of the counter-culture era, a solid undercurrent of narrative is used merely as a spring-board to question far more intriguing and occasionally problematic topics. Interestingly, Valerie has been taken into the arms of the Folk Horror Revival movement, sitting healthily, if intriguingly, alongside such films as Blood On Satan’s Claw (1971) and The Wicker Man (1973) in discussions of the sub-genre. Valerie shares a number of resemblances and key motifs with these and other films of the sub-genre which will also become key as the analysis continues.
Valerie is about a young girl living in some unnamed time and place. She is surrounded by fantastical, florid images of daily life but things start to take a turn toward the dark and the unnerving when she comes on her first period. From here on, Valerie begins to see the world through a new prism of misrepresented sexuality, being haunted by figures and characters who are confusing and after some higher purpose. As the fantasies draw her in, it becomes impossible to keep track with what is truly happening, as if the perception through the character’s eyes has distorted reality itself to an irreparable point.
Though there is a strong sense that Valerie’s actual week of wonders is in fact a dream state grown from the symbolic approaching of adulthood’s precipice, the film provides enough actual narrative scenarios for it to be read as more than simply surreal symbolism. Her own initial beginnings of coming-of-age revolve around the recurring presence of two figures; a young boy and a strange, older creature who dons several masks and seems to want Valerie’s blood[i]. Through a series of what appear to be tests, Valerie is forced to confront her sexual awakening through the horrific appreciations of older characters and her casual falling in love with various people including her parents, her friends and another girl; as Jonathan Rosenbaum suggests, the awakening of Valerie is “poly-sexual” meaning that the prism greatly distorts Valerie’s perception, allowing a journey of sorts which could be described as the beginning of coming-of-age. In spite of several, fairly large taboos crossed, they are done so through naivety and fantasy rather than through something callous and manipulative; an important point to make when analysing such a film.
Valerie must fend off these attentions, if only to traverse this journey which is explicitly about the fine line between innocence and post-innocence. This is given the backdrop of a troupe of missionaries arriving in the town, accompanied by a carnival sect which allows the visual symbolism a whole range of avenues to explore. Valerie is shown to be interwoven with the free nature of this troupe but also deadly against the strictness of the missionaries’ staunch and hypocritical beliefs. In this sense, she is split in two; not only is she torn between her previous self and her new awakening, she is torn between Eagle, the boy who appears variously who will be shown to be vital within the symbolic narrative, and Weasel, the vampire-like creature who also appears to be at the heart of Valerie’s initial transformation and the darkness that she encounters after it.
Valerie is therefore a film of duality; a treatise on the bridges between innocence and sexuality, belief and freedom, horror and pleasure. To achieve such a duality, Jireš uses a multitude of aesthetic functions to stress the double presence of meaning and shape. Mostly though, he sets up a counter-intuitive relationship between his already layered visuals and Fišer’s musical score. Because of the thematic labyrinth that Jireš already creates for himself, Fišer’s music at first appears to be adding to the confusion; yet another illusory element to add to the myriad of images. But, as we will see, Fišer’s music, combined with the images that it comments upon and enhances, allows a way through the maze; the initially perplexing passage towards adulthood becoming mapped and navigational through the textures of tradition in the visuals and in the music.
[i] The likeness between this character and Klaus Kinski’s Nosferatu in Werner Herzog’s remake suggests that he is extremely vampire-like, enough to influence Herzog’s film with several, clearly borrowed, designs