Jaromil Jireš’ 1970 film, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, adapted from Vítězslav Nezval’s novel of the same name, is a melodramatic and melancholy dream-depiction of a child traversing the unfamiliar experiences of menstruation and lust. The film is of the Czech New Wave and is notable for its blend of fantasy & reality, subversion of piety, and whimsical imagery.
Jireš’ adaptation of the fairy-tale novel was filmed in the medieval town of Slavonice, in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, under a period of ‘normalisation’. The film’s ability to demonstrate a disdain for religious orthodoxy becomes clear through its cinematographic style.
The pastel colour and lighting that often sees Valerie bathed in bright sunshine, suffuses a shimmering, blissful quality such that her childlike innocence becomes apparent. Valerie often clutches various things to her chest, notably nestling the white dove in times of struggle, perhaps emblematic of her arduous journey and longing for lost innocence. However, shots of Valerie’s childish joy are soon sullied with the new weight of lust and fear, as they are juxtaposed with the horror that unfolds, uncovering the film’s anticlerical meanings.
Folk melodies are heard throughout, featuring a music box, flute and a girls’ choir. These sounds are concurrent with the successive images of Valerie at the very beginning of the film, often implementing high angle shots wherein characters look above them. This suggests the pervasiveness of religion and emphasises Valerie’s vulnerability, while also alluding to her potential for deviancy. Jireš’ avant-garde cutting techniques imbue Valerie with a dream-like quality and demonstrate his subversion and reinvention of a narrative through his visual retelling of Nezval’s novel.
Valerie’s anxieties surrounding her burgeoning sexuality and the licentious behaviour of her grandmother are emblematised through her vampirism. Valerie eagerly anticipates the carnival, with its costume and frenzy, proclaiming to her grandmother, ‘The actors are coming’. Her devoutly religious grandmother responds with a forewarning that Valerie ought to be more concerned with the arrival of the missionaries. This somewhat hypocritical warning foreshadows what is to come later: during Hedvika’s wedding celebration, the cloaked Constable removes his mask to reveal a Nosferatu-esque figure, who leers at Valerie, causing her to scream. This creation of angst through various duplicitous portrayals of the preternatural, reminiscent of the German Expressionist mode of cinema that utilised nightmarish surroundings, captures the dread lurking amidst the artificial lightness of the wedding ceremony.
The labyrinthine plot and underground lair where Valerie encounters the vampires, including the Constable who she discovers may be her father, mirrors the idea that Valerie will have been taught, by authority, to suppress her desires. The fact that she witnesses her grandmother debasing herself at the feet of the Constable implies the hypocrisy of religion and perhaps the danger of such suppressions.
As our protagonist experiences physical and emotional changes, we are reminded of the limitations of knowledge and the headiness of subjective experience. This is an idea that Jonathan Owen espouses when he discusses Valerie’s place in Czechoslovak cinema. In Valerie, this guarding of knowledge is visually represented through various shots wherein Valerie is peeping through keyholes and veils, most often to witness intimate sexual acts. Not only does this continue the air of secrecy throughout the film, but it also illuminates Valerie’s curiosity about sexuality.
Mise-en-scène plays an important part in the overall style and tone of the film. The Gothic castle residence, and the fixtures and objects found within (mirrors, dolls, oil lamps), signify Valerie’s ever-evolving moods, as well as the capriciousness of the characters’ behaviours and reactions throughout. The unique Baroque-style architecture harking back to 17th and 18th century Bohemia refers to an idyllic Czech past, yet also ‘dreams’ (literally) of a future for Czechoslovakia that might escape tyranny and seek freedom. Jireš succeeds in creating a film that is uniquely tied to Czech history, but which also resonates with audiences far and wide through its timelessness of place and its ability to elicit awe and wonder.
Jireš, Jaromil, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (Slavonice: Filmové studio Barrandov, 1970)
Owen, Jonathan L., “Back to Utopia: Returns of the Repressed in Jaromil Jireš’s Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970)”, in Avant-Garde to New Wave: Czechoslovak Cinema, Surrealism and the Sixties (New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2011), pp. 157-188.