Thursday, June 3, 2010

Film Review: VALERIE AND HER WEEK OF WONDERS (1970, Jaromil Jires)

Stars: 5 of 5.
Running Time: 77 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Helena Anyzova, Jaroslava Schallerova, Petr Kopriva, Jirí Prymek, Jan Klusak.
Best one-liner: "He's one hundred years overdue for death!"

This one's certainly a peculiar specimen. Directed by Czech New Waver Jaromil Jires and based on the 1935 surrealist-Gothic-horror Bildungsroman of the same name, VALERIE AND HER WEEK OF WONDERS could be described as hallucinatory, disorienting, and dreamlike. But in calling it "dreamlike," I'm forced to reconsider all previous use of the word, and I realize that perhaps I'd be better served in choosing another. "Phantasmagorical" sounds about right. Maybe "kaleidoscopically chimerical."

The plot, if you could call it that, concerns a young girl whose dreams within dreams betray a hotbed of impending psychological anxieties associated with puberty, womanhood, and the untrustworthy, sex-crazed, and beglove'd world of adults. Menstruation, vampires, flagellants, the walking dead, a pair of enchanted earrings- the usual.

The titanic influences of Ingmar Bergman, Carl Dreyer, and F.W. Murnau can surely be felt, but there's a real spark of life to it and a compelling sense of post-60's style- I'd say that a little Mario Bava's in there, too. Some have called VALERIE a fairy tale, inspired by the likes of ALICE IN WONDERLAND and LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD. It's even more appealing to pin it down as such, given its clear influence on subsequent works from Angela Carter and Neil Jordan's THE COMPANY OF WOLVES to Jan Svankmajer's ALICE to even Lynch and Frost's TWIN PEAKS, but I think it might be more accurate to say that it resembles a medieval painting 'come to life.' Imagine a sprawling vision by Bosch, brimming with disturbing, inscrutable visual metaphors and beguiling, fleeting reveries; fair maidens and old crones; men of the cloth and perversions of men of the cloth; dances of life and dances of death. It's truly as if a portal has opened from within one of these masterworks and allowed us a quite tangible, timeless taste of its fancifully macabre contents (or as tangible as twenty-four frames-per-second will allow).

Jan Curik's cinematography is nothing short of astonishing. He and Jires endow the film with a real texture, and foreground and background elements compliment each other perfectly: lace, cobwebs, bees, mirrors, flames, feathers, keyholes, candlesticks, reeds. The oddly bewitching (and sometimes purposefully repulsive) Czech use of color is only rivaled by Vera Chytilová and Jaroslav Kucera's work on DAISIES.

But what to say about the film? There's lesbians, backflips, vampires, incubi, masks, monsters, blackface, bone necklaces, malformed teeth, and the most enchanting amber fields of grain this side of a St. Ides bottle.

But I don't wish to simply describe events that occur within the film- nor do I really wish to affect your pure, unfettered enjoyment by imparting a commentary on the nebulous symbolism, the rampant incest, or the harshly anti-ecclesiastical and pro-'hot lesbian action' stances contained within. It's really about any given moment- a pale horse scrutinizing our heroine from a distance, the ethereal imagery of descending fall leaves, diseased chicken feathers floating to the ground amidst cobwebb'd coffins...

There are some genuinely disquieting, dissonant moments, and some which are soothingly hypnotic. So perhaps I should just let the film speak for itself- I'll leave you with a collage of images that are indicative of the film as a whole, but which are by no means comprehensive...

Five stars.

-Sean Gill

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