Czech New Wave filmmaker Jaromil Jireš’ 1970 art-fantasy Valerie and her Week of Wonders (Valerie a týden divů) is as luscious as it is incomprehensible—its story (something about magical protective earrings, the title heroine coming of age, and a family of fairy + folk tale tropes: evil grandmothers, vampires, and a brother-hero) being merely a canvas on which the film un-paints itself. And those un-paintings are beautiful and wonderful, sometimes erotic, and often imaginative, though it’s up-close (in close-ups: still lifes, portraits) that Jireš and cinematographer Jan Curík excel; when the camera slides too far back, control and beauty are lost. The film particularly relies—and re-re-returns—to the face of Valerie, the face of actress Jaroslava Schallerová,
whose eyes express a depth of understanding and maturity that contrasts with her age (as actress and as character), so that whenever she’s shown in long-shot, when it becomes clear that she’s still only a young girl, the film loses this [illusion of] depth, along with some of its magic: poetry turns to narrative, and the narrative isn’t enthralling.
Other characters are also given enchanting close-ups. I was especially taken with Helena Anýzová, who plays Valerie’s grandmother (among other characters) and who has acted in only one other film: Juraj Herz’ The Cremator. Her other film career, as a costume designer, was slightly longer (5 films), but I don’t think she designed costumes for Valerie. I don’t know if she’s still alive; her last IMDB-documented stint as costume designer was in 1982. In Valerie, she is simply stunning!
I was also impressed by the film’s shots of objects, which aspire to symbolism, but more often achieve “only” beauty. It’s up to the viewer to work out their meanings—if any—but it hardly matters. Like other aspects of the film’s style, these still lifes are best when accompanied by little or no motion. Jireš cannot keep up his sense of elegance when faced with cameras and characters moving. His plans, his compositions are for static objects. When they move, the film begins to creak. This is not a big complaint, because only the rarest filmmakers truly think in terms of cinema, in terms of moving images, but it is enough to break the spell.
The film’s mood is hard to pin down: at times horrific, at others benign. Things are not constant. Villains fade from evil to tame, and Valerie’s own journey veers from serious to playful. Camp is not a dirty word, so Valerie can be described as campy. Over the course of the entire film, however, the progression is certainly from the ominous to the joyful and life affirming. The final scene is a vast celebration in which all characters (dead or alive, good or evil) take part as equal and equally-free participants. It’s the big, rousing finale—from Wonderland, albeit without Alice.
Inspired by Cream? The curtains aren’t the right colour.
I included this image, of Valerie perched like a gargoyle (or a bird, if you prefer), because I don’t remember too many shots of the sky. For such a fanciful film, Valerie sure is Earth-bound. Along with the close-ups this gives it an interior, boxed feel. The shot above the shot of the sky is of the villain, a vampire with funny ears!
Now I have a confession to make. Despite Valerie being an enticing film, equally playful and fantastic, presented as a parade of [mostly] amazing images, I was happy that it wasn’t a second longer than it’s brief seventy-odd (else: seventy odd) minutes. I’m not sure why—maybe the barrage of narrative-lite weirdness is aggressive and tiring, or else I need some substance behind my pretty pictures—but I was happy to turn the film off and get out of its world. And while I like all the screen caps I took and admire their visual artistry, that world didn’t haunt me like other film-worlds have haunted me. Still, I’ll leave you with its final image, which might just fit yet with Ginger Baker on drums, Jack Bruce on Bass, and Eric Clapton on guitar: