Adolescence, Adulthood and Sexuality in Valerie and Her Week of Wonders by Kitty Wenham

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.


This piece was written by Kitty Wenham - you can find out more about Kitty via their Twitter and website.

David Lynch and the American Dream by Olly Smith

Please note: this article contains major spoilers for the films Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive.

As audiences we consume Americana in the mass media every single day. It is found in adverts, radio, television, and – most importantly – cinema. The image of the Statue of Liberty or the Hollywood Sign is ingrained in my mind as much as Big Ben or the London Eye, and are part of the characterisation of the country itself: The American Dream. The belief that social mobility is an equal opportunity for all citizens. Of course, we now know through modern studies that this is not the case, and that the reality of America uses your background, race and gender among other things will affect that mobility, but this does not stop Americana from seeping into our everyday lives as a way of selling the American Dream to audiences. 

Associations with the culture can be found in brands such as Coca-Cola or Chevrolet. In music genres like Jazz or Country. In popular icons like Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe. It was traditionally used in films for the same reason, as can be seen in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), but as time went on filmmakers began to react more critically to this mantra. One need only look at the social commentary present within John Carpenter’s They Live (1988) – featuring an alien race impersonating the rich and powerful, that use subliminal advertising to encourage the general public to conform and obey – to see how the attitudes were changing. Similarly, it was around then that auteur director David Lynch – then fresh off the boat from his adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune – began deploying a similar posture in his films.

The opening sequence of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986) features a white picket fence lined with bright red roses. The frame then switches to a tranquil suburban street as a 1950s-style fire engine travels by. In the background, we hear Bobby Vinton’s recording of ‘Blue Velvet’, which had hit No. 1 in 1963. Already in the first thirty seconds of the picture, we are exposed to a similar amount of Americana that we would be in an advert or a song. Suddenly, an old man watering his garden suffers a heart attack, struggling in pain as an infant looks on. The camera then zooms towards the ground, revealing a dark underbelly to this energetic world as it gets deeper into the grass. Those vibrant colours from before are gone, only to be left with the grotesque image of insects consuming each other. 

The highly contrasted red, white and blue colour scheme is also strikingly present in this scene, and becomes the primary palette for the rest of the film as other props, characters and sets are dressed in similar shades. Despite taking place in the 1980s – as evidenced by the cars and music – the film has an older aesthetic inspired by works such as Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) in order to enhance this sense of classic Americana.

 © 1986 – MGM

© 1986 – MGM

Blue Velvet’s plot begins with protagonist Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) returning to his quaint hometown of Lumberton, North Carolina to visit his ailing father in the hospital. Whilst there, he finds a severed ear in a field which immediately sparks an investigation from himself and Sandy (Laura Dern), the daughter of a police detective. Following this, Jeffrey becomes embroiled in a dark underworld as he begins a fervent, sexual affair with singer Dorothy (Isabella Rossellini) at the same time as romantically pursuing Sandy. Meanwhile, he is targeted by local mobster Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) who is also sexually involved with Dorothy, albeit in a more twisted, oedipal passion.

The world as presented in Blue Velvet operates on a basis of dream logic. This does not mean the events of the film take place in a dream, but rather the small oddities and contradictions go unnoticed by the characters. We see this when Sandy says she knows Jeffrey found the ear because “she just knows”, or how the police investigation into the ear does not ever really have a resolution. It feels like a callback to ‘80s teen slasher horror films that rely on its cast of youngsters to drive the plot, whilst all the adults seem to have a degree of distance from the narrative.

With Lumberton standing in as this dream-like location, it feels like Lynch is lulling us into a place of serenity and comfort. As Jeffrey becomes involved with Frank’s criminal underworld, with the violence, sexual economy and anarchy that ensues, this ease is diminished as we soon realise this is the reality of Lumberton. That initial opening sequence of the quiet suburban street and parasitic bugs acts as a microcosm for how Lynch believes America functions. On the surface, the country is wholesome, happy and tranquil. Underneath, it is violent and chaotic.

 © 1986 – MGM

© 1986 – MGM

David Lynch would later expand on this idea of sunny America having a darker side in many of his following works, such as Twin Peaks (1990-91) and Wild at Heart (1990). In Mulholland Drive (2001), he would again explore the American Dream and the divide between success and failure.

Mulholland Drive tells the story of an aspiring actress named Betty (Naomi Watts) arriving in Los Angeles and staying at her Aunt’s house, where she befriends an amnesiac woman calling herself Rita (Laura Harring) who has recently been involved in a car accident. The film also features other vignettes and narrative threads, most notably one involving film director Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux) as he is stripped of creative control over his current project. Betty finds success in Hollywood as her auditions impress the producers, but she and Rita also fall in love. 

In the final thirty minutes of the film, a twist reveals the events preceding were all part of a dream concocted by Betty, who is really a failed actress named Diane. While in the dream she finds success in her acting career and can be with the woman she loves, in reality she has none of those things. She is driven into a deep depression as a result of an ended affair with a more successful actress named Camilla Rhodes (also played by Laura Harring). Many other aspects from the fantasy are contrasted or mirrored in the real world, and the twist itself is foreshadowed many times throughout the film, most notably when Betty exclaims “it’s like I’m living in a dream world” when talking about her life in Los Angeles.

Mulholland Drive uses the concept of dreams to remark on the state of the American Dream in the film industry. Aspiring actors are frequently moving to California in the hopes of finding success in a film career, but the reality is that most will not make it big. While the unemployment rate for the United States currently sits at around 4%, the Actor’s Equity Association has a number hitting 90%. In a 2005 article for The New York Times, executive director of the University Theater Association Scott L. Steele stated: "We're producing too many people. Many of them poorly trained or moved into the field without the connections or relationships necessary to make their transition to a career possible.” With this in mind, getting a successful job in acting seems – quite literally speaking in the case of Mulholland Drive – to be the American Dream.

 © 2001 - Universal Pictures

© 2001 - Universal Pictures

Even the road Mulholland Drive itself is located along the Santa Monica mountain range, which separates the glamorous areas of Hollywood and Beverly Hills from the poorer San Fernando Valley. It acts as a metaphorical divider between success and failure, which is encapsulated within both lead characters themselves. Therefore, Lynch dresses up a very horrific reality for Diane with a surreal fantasyland in which she can have what her heart desires, a sentiment that many others who have failed under the American Dream can possibly relate to. 

This is why Mulholland Drive repurposes the Americana that Blue Velvet brought to the table. Lumberton in Blue Velvet is a happy, wholesome American town on the surface with a seedy criminal environment clawing its way out. On the other hand, Mulholland Drive flips the switch by using dreams to imply that dark underbelly is the surface of America, and aspirations for success are better invented in a fantasy world. Both films explore the two sides of the coin and how American imagery is often used as a substitute for achievement and happiness. I think this is an important theme to explore in a society that uses these images in a large capacity across all types of media. 


This piece was written by Olly Smith - you can find out more about Olly via their Twitter and website.

Tips for Film Critics: Part Two by Ewan Gleadlow

Have you read Part One? Check that out here!


KEEP TRACK OF WHAT YOU HAVE REVIEWED 

For me, keeping track of which films I have reviewed is absolutely integral. Not just to show how many films I have reviewed and how I felt about them, but to create a timeline to find out what films I need to review next. 

Sometimes I may review a film and it will have a sequel which, for whatever reason, I have not reviewed yet. As a self-proclaimed Completionist, it would be a priority for me to review an entire franchise over random, sporadic picks. 

When it comes to tracking tools, I like Letterboxd. It is practical, easy to use, and solely dedicated to film. You can share your reviews, comment on other reviews, and log every movie you have seen with a star rating, all in one place. Not to mention the friends and followers you can make through the site - it is a very welcoming place. 

HAVE AN OPINION 

That seems like pretty vague advice, doesn’t it? Really what I am saying is: do not be afraid to go head to head with the critical consensus. 

Having your own platform is fantastic. It allows for a new opinion to break the mould of what is expected. If you feel a film is truly awful or fantastic, it is your right to tell us why. Reviews like this are needed to challenge the hegemonic reading of a film. 

Contemporary reviews are integral; both on modern films and classics too. And having your own unique opinion is what makes your writing interesting. Do not be afraid or persuaded to conform to an opinion that has already been set out by a majority. 

If you genuinely feel that Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) is a great film like I do, do not be afraid to tell your audience that. Audiences appreciate honesty over conformity. 

ALWAYS WATCH THE SEQUEL 

 I hate the Rush Hour films, but I have seen all three of them. That is because I think it is integral that you watch the sequel. 

Whether the sequel changes your perception of the original film or not, is entirely dependent on the film, although sometimes the follow up is better than the foundation. Either way, watching the sequel can help you see the bigger picture, and the overall goal intended by the director or writer may not be entirely clear until you have seen the whole series. 

Looking for some film recommendations? Check out the link at the bottom of this article! 

REVIEW THE CLASSICS 

Sometimes it is not financially or physically possible to write reviews for the newest films. Although there are ways around this, most of them are illegal to various degrees, and so it is best to stick to reviewing the classics. 

There will always be an audience for reviews of older films. There is no harm in going back and reviewing classics starring Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and Marilyn Monroe, and there is always somebody out there wanting to an updated review of Casablanca (1942), Citizen Kane (1941) or even Jaws (1975). The possibilities for what to review are endless. 

What I will say though, if you are reviewing to reach an audience and to establish yourself as a trusted, critical voice, be sure to broaden your watching habits, but try not to go too niche for considerable periods of time. Much like sticking to one genre*, this may not be something that is marketable to a larger audience. 

UTILISE SOCIAL MEDIA 

The most help you will ever receive is from the wonder that is social media. 

For example, setting up a group on Facebook and inviting your friends to join is a great way of advertising your writing. Asking your friends to invite their friends, and so on and so on, is something that genuinely works rather well. 

Twitter is also great. Retweeting has been the saving grace of some of my articles, especially if your article is retweeted by cast and crew. So, don’t forget to tag them! 


To see what films Ewan recommends every film critic watches, check out this post! This piece was written by Ewan Gleadlow - you can find out more about Ewan via their Twitter and Wordpress site, Cult Following

Tips for Film Critics: Part One by Ewan Gleadlow

Before I begin, nothing here is set in stone, and, to be honest, that is the best piece of advice you will ever receive. Nothing is ever set in stone. But, if you are not sure where to start, here are a few tips I have picked up over the past year as a film critic…

JOIN A GROUP AND MAKE NEW FRIENDS

Community is always important in both journalism and critique, and making contacts, connections, and friends is essential. Not only to get your work noticed, but also to make critiquing more enjoyable. It is also a nice safety net to have if you need advice, help or a bit of support.

Groups like A Film Club are excellent examples of the camaraderie within the film critic circle. Weekly chats, promotion of your work, and a genuinely friendly following, all provide you with a good place to get yourself started.

Other groups are available, none that I am personally a part of, but there are various forums and groups scattered across social media that would provide you with similar support too.

WATCH AS MANY FILMS AS POSSIBLE

At the time of writing this, I have watched over 1,000 films. My personal goal is to watch 10,000. Whether that be short productions lasting seconds, or ensemble casts in four-hour long marathons, I try and watch as much as humanly possible. 

The main reason for this is: the more you watch, the more you understand. My personal understanding of film has greatly improved solely through watching as many films as I could get my hands on. And this is evident in the difference between my early work and my more recent writing.

But to watch so many films is a Herculean task. One way to watch as much as possible is to aim to watch a film every day. You could watch something new, or a film you have not seen in a while, and it does not have to be a feature length blockbuster either. 

I usually use short films as a break during film marathon days; where I collect five or six films, and set about watching them all in one sitting. Short films, that last only a minute or so, provide a lovely break in between features. Alternatively, shorts can also help clear your mind after a long day of working or studying… And there is nothing to say you cannot review short films either!

Looking for some film recommendations? Check out the link at the bottom of this article!

REVIEW A VARIETY OF GENRES

Chaining together films from the same genre for long stretches of time can get repetitive. I once tried to review as many Keanu Reeves films as I could in one block, but after four I realised it was not fun for me or my audience. Whilst writing a really great film review requires you to hone your interests, do not be afraid to review films from completely different genres. 

The one thing I wish I had known when I first started out is: do not become complacent. People will not read the same review, and you will tire of writing about the same genre, over and over again. Therefore a change of scenery (and genre) is always great to have. 

If your next few reviews are about films of the same genre, shake it up a little bit. Throw a film in that breaks the mould. Of course if you love Action films review as many as you desire, but always keep your audience expecting something new and unique.

HANDWRITTEN NOTES OVER DIGITAL

This one is more of a personal preference, but writing out your notes by hand can sometimes be far more beneficial than typing them. 

The most integral reason for this is that hand writing notes eliminates the distractions enabled by a laptop or tablet. Writing notes down on your iPhone is all well and good until you ignore the film and start browsing Amazon for more films or, in my case, Pulp CDs.

When you go to make notes on a film, imagine you are going to see that film at the cinema. Turn off your phone and the lights, grab some snacks, and have a few pens handy for your notes. I tend to make four pages of A5 notes due to a poor memory, but make as many or as little as you need!

Aside from reducing distractions, writing out your notes by hand just seems to look really nice. There is something satisfying about having a pile of journals and notebooks full to the brim with notes on films you watched months ago. It is almost like a timeline of your work; something physical that you can display alongside your presumed DVD and Blu-Ray collections.

START COLLECTING

I think one of the reasons I became a film reviewer is because I started to buy films quite frequently. I would come back with multiple carrier bags of DVDs from charity shops, who often sell them for a couple of pounds at the most. Possibly one of my favourite bits of writing is my review of Alien (1979); a film I found in a charity shop.

Buying DVDs so cheaply allows you to build up a library of films that you can review at your disposal. But, on the other hand, you may not want your collection to be full of shelf filler… A problem I have after a year of bulk buying DVDs. What I am going to do with three copies of Man on Fire (2004) I will truly never know.

Of course, you do not have to spend a fortune in charity shops and retail stores at all. Those with access to Netflix and Amazon Prime will be able to give up to date reviews of contemporary products, and reviewing Netflix’s newest original films could get you noticed by a bigger audience. 


This piece was written by Ewan Gleadlow - you can find out more about Ewan via their Twitter and Wordpress site, Cult Following

To see what films Ewan recommends every film critic watches, check out this post, and for more tips, stay tuned for part two!