Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Valerie a týden divu (Valerie and Her Week of Wonders) (1971)

Seen: On dvd on my laptop, rented from netflix.

My experience with Czech films has so far been limited to the animated brilliance of Jan Svankmajer and the perfection of Daisies, but I've been meaning to prod deeper into the Czech New Wave and such. Valerie Her Week of Wonders had been on my radar for a while after reading about it at 366 Weird Movies, and boy am I glad it finally made it to the top of my netflix queue. The loosely-structured plot concerns the titular Valerie (Jaroslava Schallerová), a quiet, curious girl who finds herself surrounded by strange characters and bizarre events after getting her first period. She uncovers secrets about her absent parents, fends off sexual advances from lascivious religious figures, engages in some sexy activity with more gentle partners, plays host to a local vampire infestation, and is ultimately branded a witch. But she's pretty resourceful and she's got magic earrings, so don't worry, she'll figure it out.

Shot like a feature-length dream sequence and dispensing ample amounts of weirdness, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is a coming-of-age fantasy that's bolstered equally by its exploitative horror elements and its emotionally resonant central performance. I wasn't sure what was going on a lot of the time, but I know I loved all of it. The visuals are wonderfully bizarre, with grotesque make-up effects and off-putting quick cuts, along with soft-glow environmental scenes and sets that are to die for. The vampiric subplot (which kinda becomes the main plot) lends a gothic atmosphere and familial melodrama almost as moody as Dark Shadows, but stranger. Themes of maturity, female sexuality, love and relationships, religious hypocrisy, and self-discovery weave their way throughout the film, filtered through a somewhat obtuse narrative and intriguing sense of disconnect. And a very obvious disdain for the Catholic church. Hell yes.

Despite all the weirdness and sexy vampire shenanigans and whatnot, Valerie is also a tender, beautiful coming-of-age story with a 13-year-old girl at its center. She's kind of shy and fragile, but also stubborn, smart, and compassionate, and Schallerová is mesmerizing in the role. This could easily have been some kind of "loss of innocence" or sexploitation-y story, but it's mostly a look at one girl's gradual sexual awakening, played out on her own terms as she interacts with older men and women around her. Visual and symbolic metaphors abound as her journey is played out both magically and literally. Her discoveries are scary, confusing, and at times lovely. By the end, Valerie seems to have decided that she's learned a lot from all these odd people in her life but she's not ready to join them yet in full adulthood, and she'll keep doing her own thing for now. The final scene is surprisingly uplifting considering how much vampire activity and attempts at murder had been going down. Sublimely wonderful.

4.5/5

Pair This Movie With: I know it's kind of a dick move to recommend a movie that's totally unavailable, but I think Pipilotti Rist's Pepperminta would make a great double feature! It has similar themes- female maturity, metaphors about menstruation, super-weirdness- but it's much more fun and colorful so it'd be a nice counterpoint to the horror elements in Valerie. For something more accessible, I guess just pick your favorite lady coming-of-age-type movie.

6 comments:

  1. I don't think I fully understood the film, but I agree that it was very beautiful and a fine portrayal of a young woman's coming of age.

    The one aspect of it that I thought it really nailed was Valerie learning about the fallibility of adults, as with her grandmother who at first seems like a stoic and reliable figure but later reveals her vulnerabilities and loneliness.

    Also, I feel like a lot of coming of age stories focus on personal development alone, but what makes Valerie stand out for me is how it makes the change external, exposing things that were previously closed off to her. While other films are about observations of young protagonist's becoming adults and how it changes them, this was about the experience of becoming an adult and how it changes the world around you.

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