Criterion Corner: Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (#761)

Surrealism is tricky. Some dislike it altogether, finding it too random. Myself, I respond to some of it (as the name of this blog may suggest, I’m not altogether averse to a nice slice of Lynch), but there must be an underlying form, a sense that there is some form or logic at play, even if it is the dream logic of, say, Eraserhead or Mulholland Drive. As soon as it veers into the formlessness of Dada, I tend to disengage.

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, by the Czechoslovak director Jaromil Jireš, leans more towards the former; its surrealism is definitely more dreamlike and Freudian than it is arbitrary, and most of its images aren’t all too difficult to interpret: blood falling on daisies signifies the onset of the protagonist’s first period, vampires hungering for Valerie’s blood and its power to keep them youthful represent sexual desire and the lust of the old for the young. Valerie and Her Week of Wonders isn’t hard to read – yet its tone, somewhere between uncanny and camp, is quite effective at times. It is the kind of film that works better the less it is interpreted, perhaps, because interpretation reduces it into shopworn tropes of Freudian analysis.

Also, sadly, it is very easily reduced to a sexual fantasy whose object of desire is a thirteen-year-old girl.

Films from the ’60s and ’70s, the era of the sexual revolution, can be difficult to watch nowadays, especially in how they depict minors. Obviously, there are films whose stories and themes justify a sexualised depiction of young actors (and is it just me, or are these mostly female?), and Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout (1971) isn’t the same as Louis Malle’s Pretty Baby (1978), in which a twelve-year-old Brooke Shields plays a prostitute. Valerie and Her Week of Wonders isn’t a teen oglefest from beginning to end, but it raises several eyebrows due to how it wants to have its cake and eat it. On the one hand, it depicts its vampires out for nubile Valerie’s blood as leering and monstrous as well as ridiculous, but its camera lens seems to share their lustful gaze much of the time. The film isn’t child porn, but neither is it an innocent look at the sexual awakening of a young girl, nor a critical one at the way society objectifies young women. The 1984 film The Company of Wolves, directed by Neil Jordan and co-written by him and Angela Carter, may have been influenced by Valerie, but that film did a better job of delivering its themes without opening itself up to justified claims of hypocrisy, of talking about sexual awakening at the same time as using it for the prurient gratification of its audience.

The main problem may be that Valerie (Jaroslava Schallerová) is only interesting intermittently, she is only a character with wants and needs and agency relatively rarely. Much of the time she is reactive. This fits with the dreamlike atmosphere of the film, but it makes a huge difference to how its depiction of Valerie as a sexual being lands.

It’s a shame, because there are moments where Valerie becomes much more of a person with an actual character. After she rebuffs a priest who tries to rape her, he tries to have her burnt at the stake as a witch, because clearly this young woman tried to corrupt him with her female wiles. Valerie, protected from harm by means of magic earrings, mocks him and his (mostly male) entourage for their self-serving hypocrisy. This moment shows what the film, and in particular its protagonist, could be – and what it isn’t for most of its relatively short running time. I can see the appeal of Valerie‘s blend of dreamlike unease and satirical subversion – but the softcore stylings, which make the film look like a David Hamilton take on the pohádky, the considerably more chaste Czechoslovak TV fairy tales that I watched as a kid, undermine much of what worked for me about the film.

Verdict: If you like surrealist cinema, if you like Slavic fairytales and Freudian subtext, if you don’t mind storytelling that sexualises underage girls and whose stories of sexual awakening are undermined by the extent to which the young subjects are actually objectified, you may get more out of Valerie and Her Week of Wonders than I did. For me, it’s the first of the films I’ve watched since starting the Criterion Corner where I wished afterwards that I had access to the Criterion Channel and could have just streamed it once and been done with it. There is definitely a certain fascination to Valerie, but in terms of the films of the Czechoslovak New Wave that I’ve seen, I much prefer Vera Chytilová’s Daisies (1966, original title: Sedmikrásky), a decidedly more anarchist slice of surrealism, whose two young female protagonists are also sexualised (though admittedly one of the leads was 19 and the other in her early 20s, so it’s not quite the same situation as with Valerie‘s Jaroslava Schallerová) but the film ridicules sexist notions and gives its two main characters agency and autonomy throughout, as they subvert a world that generally seeks to objectify young women. They are far from heroic – in fact, the pair is often quite horrid -, but they exhibit a freedom that Valerie and Her Week of Wonders only rarely begins to imagine. Its protagonist in turn is left to navigate a world where she is seen as prey by most, and the film itself seems to see her through eyes that aren’t altogether different. While it would be too facile to reduce this to the film’s directors, the fact that Daisies was directed by a woman and Valerie by a man may at least begin to explain this difference. There is more to Valerie‘s depiction of female sexuality than this, certainly, and there are various interesting wrinkles, but it’s difficult to get past the objectification. Looking up stills to add to this post, I realise that Valerie and her Week of Wonders is one of those films where I like individual impressions a lot, but where some of its elements detract considerably from the whole. I love the look and feel of many of these images, the sly, satirical kitsch turned dreamlike and uncanny – but this is considerably easier for me to appreciate in individual glimpses than in the film as a whole.

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