Warning: This piece contains spoilers, and includes some discussion of attempted suicide and rape.
“I’m asleep, and this is all a dream” Valerie reassures herself, or perhaps us, her audience, whilst being carried away from a nightmarish scene by a young man. Who may be her brother, or a newly budding sexual interest. The reality of the situation is never truly clarified, nor is her relationship to the mysterious, and spritely saviour, Orlik.
Sometimes dismissed as a mere coming of age story, or another addition to the popular 1970s European soft porn collection, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970) is the tale of womanhood interpreted as an inexplicable maze; a deeply unsettling and sadomasochistic fever dream. It is a Bohemian metamorphosis both fantastically surreal and brimming with existential anxiety. Although it is easy to fixate on the strangeness and cryptic fantasia of Valerie, it is quite simply a hallucinatory portrait of pubescence, that finds its chief focus on the same Oedipal anxiety that makes growing up such a terrifying adventure in Gothic art and literature; the enigma of origins.
In this adaptation, Jireš favours non-traditional storytelling techniques. The use of allegory, iconography and symbolism largely substitutes narrative and chronology, and the lasting result is a powerful piece of visual poetry that grotesquely portrays the anxiety of growing up, and what it means to confront morality, sexuality and adulthood head on. To truly understand what is going on, it is best to approach Valerie as less of a narrative, and more like a potent proliferation of symbolism. A tapestry. A mosaic.
One of the first things you notice is that Valerie’s thin veneer of normality exists in a world that seems uncannily without time. It could exist as equally in the era it was filmed as it could in the preceding few centuries. With its ethereal palette, of earthly, lustrous colours and over-exposure, you initially seem to be floating through a strange netherworld that has the pastoral feel of a Pre-Raphaelite Romance… But then Jireš throws you off-guard.
With a strong undercurrent of Gothic fable, and cultish paganism, Jireš reminds you that nothing is quite as it seems. Character actions are often unmotivated, or unexplained. The lack of fluidity and dreamlike ellipses create a disjunctive narrative. The strange camera angles are fleeting, lack transition, and have no explicit narrative use. With the high angles often making it feel like the audience are ogling, rather than participating in this story.
To convey the chaos of the unsettling period between childhood and adulthood, Jireš expertly uses the language of Gothicism and fairy-tales to mirror the paradox that exists between these two periods of a person’s life. Valerie is a prototypical fairy-tale heroine. She is doe-eyed and beautiful, with all the typical attributes of a traditional, folk-tale protagonist. She is kind, courageous, and clever, as well as implacably innocent, and remains so to an almost indefatigable degree. In contrast, her grandmother’s initial characterisation is austere, and sallow; puritan in appearance and personality.
The fairy-tale elements begin to blend with the Gothic early on. Characters transmute and are reincarnated without explanation, but Jireš ability to make us suspend our disbelief is unparalleled. The vampires, black magic, corrupt clergy and witch burnings, could exist in the world of Slavic folklore as equally as in the height of Gothic genre. It is how Jireš uses these elements to explore the larger thematic significances of the movie that propels it truly into the Gothic. Vampires become a metaphor for sexuality and loss of innocence, notably through heavy themes of lesbianism. The pious grandmother is literally transmogrified into a sexualised, raging vampiric figure of ungratified lust, who spends the rest of the film trying to steal Valerie’s youth.
Through his heroine, Jireš expertly presents the key Gothic concept of the duality of men in which everyone has both a potentially dark and good side. Sexuality is something to be both feared and celebrated. The themes of corruption, moral transgression, dangerous lust and sexual violence run rampant, but Valerie remains sexually curious rather than merely affably innocent. Adding to the confusion, characters seem to meld, transfigure and metamorphose into one another. The main antagonist, known only as the Constable, is at any given point a beast, a priest, a vampire, a lover, and Valerie’s uncle or father. The grandmother becomes Valerie’s mother. Orlik could be Valerie’s cousin, brother, or a complete stranger.
The main motivation of all these antagonistic characters seems to be to exploit Valerie’s naivety, ultimately pushing her into adulthood, or like many classic Gothic plots, to corrupt her. Valerie’s own grandmother, who, in a desperate attempt to regain her youth and the favour of her former lover, sacrifices Valerie’s future as the inheritor of the family home. Then, fearing Valerie has usurped her, sets out to destroy her granddaughter. Not just by drinking her blood, but trying to lock her away.
The fact that all of these events revolve around Valerie’s menarche – a significant incident that does not take place in the book – has led some to suggest that Jireš intended this film to be interpreted as the Freudian fantasies of a young girl. This may explain why she approaches all of these obstacles with a constant child-like affability and matter of fact manner, no matter how strange they become. In the book, the catalyst of these events is a pair of pendulous earrings, which could perhaps be analysed as a symbol of adolescence, but Jireš uses these only as a thread. Instead his decision to use her first period, as a stimulus that causes Valerie to begin seeing the world through a new prism of misrepresented sexuality, is much more potent.
Supporting this interpretation of a film about the havoc of puberty, Valerie’s awakening is almost polysexual. She explores many different avenues; heterosexual, same-sex, or even suggestively incestuous relationships. However, even in the scene in which Valerie meets with an old childhood friend, Hedvika, Valerie seems almost asexual, despite the scenes heavy lesbian undertones. Valerie excitedly exclaims “I’ve never had a girlfriend before!”, and her tender kisses cure her young friend of her wounds.
Valerie’s attitude distinctly contrasts with the tone of pretty much every other character in the film. One missionary gives a speech to a group of young girls on the importance of virtue, and later tries to rape Valerie. Fearing he has killed her in his attempt, he hangs himself, only to be inexplicably reanimated so that he can unsuccessfully attempt to rally up the villagers, and have Valerie burned at the stake as a witch. The ending scenes of the film see Valerie strolling peacefully through the woods as a Bacchanalian orgy takes place around her. Adult sexuality is constructed as a force that is strange, enigmatic, and mysterious.
Issues arise when Jireš declines to present any kind of alternative. Many times, throughout the movie, you find yourself wondering whether this really is supposed to be a film about female sexuality and growth, or a clumsy male interpretation of it.
Most worrying is the Director’s decision to cast a 13-year-old actor as Valerie, when the novel’s eponymous character is notably 17. Valerie seems less like a fully rounded character than a blank repository for the paedophilic fantasies of the older characters and, presumably, the audience. She is shown completely naked on one occasion, and other parts of her body are bared multiple times. Images are more about how she is perceived by others as apposed to how she feels, and considering that both the novel and the film were written by men, it is not so much an accurate depiction of the horrors of pubescence but a forced sexualisation of them, and the concepts of ‘purity’ and ‘virginity’. The negative depiction of religion seems like a weird comment on this hypocrisy and you cannot tell if it is intended to be critical or indulgent.
Compared to the novel, Valerie seems more like an exercise in fetishisation. The heroine is turned from a child into an object of lust. The camera often lingers with uncomfortable fascination on her face, mouth, and hair. Although the lack of phallic climaxes has led some to conclude that this is truly a movie of the female gaze, its prurience seems to hold it back from being considered as a feminist film of any sorts.
This is not a movie that ever claims to be clear cut. Its chief motif seems to be the concept of duality. Adulthood is exciting, and dangerous, at the same time. So much of the film is completely paradoxical; the images of waking daydreams juxtaposed with nightmares, the orgy at the end taking place by the side of images of nuns stroking lambs. There is the contrast of moods; bright white, pastel rooms and lacy dresses, versus dark, decaying dungeons, cobweb strewn crypts, candles and secret passageways, dark, tight clothing and opulent jewellery, folk melodies versus choral hymns.
The characters connected to religion in the film are shown to be duplicitous, with double moral standards; the priest, the grandmother, the constable all seem to operate on ulterior motives. No one is who they seem to be. When we first see the Constable, as part of a carnival, he removes his polecat mask to reveal his terrifying, Nosferatu face, causing Valerie to scream, but then he puts his mask back on, and removes it, to reveal a young, handsome face that is later revealed to be her father.
Then there is Valerie’s own duality; being torn between the bridges of innocence and sexuality. A dream state grown from the symbolic approaching of adulthood’s precipice. But what makes Valerie the heroine of a story that is ultimately about her loss of innocence? Valerie allows chooses her freedom, rather than letting herself become a sacrificial victim. Her child-like curiosity allows her to navigate this story without compromising her own beliefs, though the point of her psychedelic week of wonders is that she is discovering exactly what these beliefs are. Which she does without being so entangled by her own pride that she falls victim to the Sadeian misfortunes of virtue, that defeat so many women in the genres of horror, and Gothicism.
At the very end of the film, Valerie simply strolls through the orgiastic riverside scene at the end, not partaking. The people symbolically dance in a circle around her bed, but she ultimately ends up suddenly isolated, and alone. Still, rather than being a sudden horrific and unnerving end, it conjures the image of a girl who has maintained her innocence, and now the nightmare is over, is ready to go back to sleep with the ease of a child in a cradle.