Thursday, 4 March 2021

Valerie And Her Week Of Wonders


Valerie And Her Week Of Wonders
aka Valerie a týden divu

Czechoslovakia 1970
Directed by Jaromil Jires
Second Run Blu Ray Zone A/B/C

Well I finally got around to seeing Valerie And Her Week Of Wonders and, really it wasn’t quite what I was expecting. And I don’t mean that in a bad way. In fact, with its occasional lesbian encounters, sexual overtones, nudity, disjointed story, surrealistic images and, unexpectedly for me, profusion of vampirism, the film reminds me a lot of the cinema of Jean Rollin, one of my favourite French directors (I’ve reviewed a few of his films for this blog already but there should be more coming to these pages at some point this year).

My other big takeaway from this, apart from the musical score, is I really am going to have to read an English translation of the original novel this is based on because, yeah, it really doesn’t seem to have much substance in terms of a through line, being littered with distractions and dilutions (again, not a bad thing) that I really don’t have much of an idea of what it was all about, really. Although a side of my brain is telling me this is because I’m over complicating things and looking too hard where there really is nothing complex to be found. To quote William Hurt’s character from The Big Chill... “Sometimes you have to let art flow over you.”

The film starts off strongly with various shots of the young title character, played by 13 year old Jaroslava Schallerová (in her debut film), interspersed among the cards on the white on black title sequence. Already from just the titles, the stunning photography pulls you in. The muted, pastel tones combines with a tumult of pastoral and village scenes where someone... is it the devil? A vampire? Valerie’s father survived death after all?... is on the mind of Valerie and her possible boyfriend/possible brother Orlik (played by Petr Kopriva). And the film starts (more or less) and ends with Valerie asleep on her bed, the narrative and passage of incidents that comprise the running time strongly suggested to be a dream by the production team.

So it demonstrates a certain dreamlike quality and surrealism which is, although a very rich and visually arresting film, somehow more surreal on the narrative side, including edits and transitions alluding more to dream logic... or rather the absence of easy to follow logic, that one encounters during one’s slumbers.

The film runs for just over an hour and a quarter and it’s shot in a 1.37/1 (almost a 4:3) aspect ratio. However, this doesn’t stop the director taking the audience on a journey that is beautifully composed in the frame. Like a lot of European cinema of the time, the author seems to favour using frames within frames in certain scenes where he can get away with it. However, while he does employ a fair amount of straight lines such as splitting the shot with verticals (for instance, in a scene where the thick net curtains on either side of a window have been parted in the middle to let the street scene below play out in the view from the upper level of Valerie’s house), he also uses many less than conventional framing techniques too for his actors.

For example, an oval, picture frame like opening in the side of a carriage but without the context of the bulk of the carriage being in shot... leaving the viewer unable to necessarily decipher the context of the moment until the carriage re-enters the narrative later on... gives the impression that Valerie is looking out through a strange picture frame with the content cut out like a hole. Later on, when Valerie is swimming around a fountain, the shaped bounding frame of the fountain acts as the frame to her as the camera follows her around, keeping her in more or less the centre of the shot while the moving frame of the fountain becomes the bounding frame of the action. It’s quite nice stuff.

Valerie herself is, it has to be said, visually hypnotic for the eye but something of a lame heroine in terms of her general naivete during her various adventures. This tends to get her in trouble a lot as she is bitten by family members who have traded in their old age to become youthful vampires, for example. Or when she ends up getting burnt at the stake (without permanent consequence to her, I might add) as a witch in vengeance for resisting the sexual advances of the travelling missionary/priest who has come, with his nuns, to her small village. So I can see the advantages of having someone so seemingly innocent and unaware of the dangers of the world outside her bed, so to speak but, the passive way in which she experiences rather than, for the majority of the time, being proactive in her stake in this, presumably internal reality of the mind, did get a little irritating at times.

That being said... and I shall know more possibly when I read the original novel... the film does seem to be a close cousin to Lewis Carrol’s tales of Alice and I can’t help but think that this was a deliberate move on the part of the director and possibly the original novelist, Vítezslav Nezval. I shall have to see but the film is definitely, in my opinion, more a film for the visual sense rather than the mind.

That being said, let me throw audio into the mix too because the random and not always ‘join the dots’ style score by Lubos Fiser and Jan Klusák plays nicely on the ear and, quite often, I was reminded of some of the mid to late 1960s writing of John Barry for one of the themes. Also, the dream logic (or lack thereof) also seems to come into play in terms of the spotting of the movie and there are one or two nice moments where the seemingly diegetic music transforms into a proper underscore. Such as when Valerie is practicing her scales on a harpsichord but, when she gets up from the instrument to do something else, the harpsichord then continues but with a more sinister tone, fully in non-diegetic mode.

And that’s about me done on this one. I really quite liked Valerie And Her Week Of Wonders and I suspect, when I get around to re-watching it at some point, I’ll love it even more. The Second Run Blu Ray includes three short films as extras, two different commentary tracks (which I hope to check out sometime) and a booklet which I also haven’t read, which purports to contain plot spoilers. If it really does then perhaps I should have read this first to find out what the plot actually was... maybe. Either way, it’s a nicely put together disc of a dreamy, surrealistic film and I suspect that’s enough for most cinephiles to take a look at this one. Highly recommended.

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