Czechoslovakia is a country whose films I am not familiar with one iota. Not one single watch from their vast, lavish works. No modern, contemporary pieces to plunge into to get a feel for the genre, nor an ounce of knowledge about its New Wave efforts or its ability to craft narrative fluidity. Having seen only the epic-length of Marketa Lazarova from director František Vláčil, the Jaromil Jireš film, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, fell entirely on the other side of the spectrum. The cold, harsh and unrelenting visual prowess of Marketa Lazarova replaced by the free-flowing creativity and ideals of Jireš free spirit. An insight into the mind of a creative. That is what I had expected from Valerie and Her Week of Wonders.
Its visuals are a necessary stimulant; artsy and stylish pieces of iconography that boil down to what you believes they represents. Some of these vague moments were immensely enjoyable. Clear representations that I could apply my thoughts to were scattered throughout. Death and religion are possibly the most obvious, with the character of the Reverend Father reminiscent of Death himself, similar in tone to that of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. While Bergman’s subtlety on the subject is absent in Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, director Jaromil Jireš is headstrong in approaching the few concepts he wishes to expand upon yet lingers too briefly on moments of subjectivity.
Valerie is a prime example of a character that manifests whichever idea we should see fit to place on her. The depraved direction and standout performance of the film gives us an enjoyable entry into the goings-on of the film yet Jires is also lacking a wider engagement between his material and his intended message. Interpretation is one thing, but making the audience fill in the blanks is a completely different style and near bewildering form of storytelling for the uninitiated. Some messages are clear though, the film is heavily critical of religious figures, seeing reverends as seedy creeps with a knack for drinking wine and supporters of full black cloaks, a surprisingly bold fashion statement even for a New Wave Czechoslovakian film.
Its method to the madness comes in the form of a pair of magic earrings that our eponymous character dons for most of the film. Allowing her to see life in a different light, she begins to have premonitions and visions that show her a darker side, all the while she blossoms into adulthood and becomes feverishly worried for her future among a sea of demented predators and snobby family members.
This intermittent stance of unknowing subjectivity is soon thrown to one side, the film turns from an artsy adlib experiment to an emotionless horror concerning vampires and witchcraft. The weird format presented to in the opening half-hour dwindles, the energy and mystery it first held lost to a storyline not too dissimilar to a Peter Cushing Hammer horror. There are brief flutters of freedom through sexual liberation, but at this point all is lost as the film dives deeper and deeper into its witchcraft and vampiric notions, taking away any ability to make a cognitive thought surrounding the meaning of its once abstract thought process.
Within the special features of Second Run’s frankly outstanding touch up of the feature film, you’ll find a handful of neat little bonuses. Possibly the best inclusion is that of three short films directed by Jireš from 1959 to 1960. Strejda (Uncle) is a charming little short that brings a light-heartedness to it when a burglar encounters a small child in the house he is robbing. The second short, Stopy (Footprints), is double the length of Strejda and half as interesting. Rounding the special features off with Sál ztracených kroků (The Hall of Lost Sleeps) and Jireš presents us three comfortably mediocre films that look to dissect issues relatively close to his heart. None of these shorts has anything to do with the feature-length piece, but for those wanting to explore more of Jireš’ work (myself included), Second Run has provided us with a fantastic set of bonuses and a nice way of engaging with a fair chunk of his work.
While I may not have found my initial dive into Czechian New Wave wholly rewarding, I truly appreciate the artistry on display here. It may feel shallow and lacking in rounded meaning (Editor: you develop that the more you dig into Czech New Wave), but there is a somewhat interesting tone to Jireš and his way of working the camera. I believe that a director uses his film as a vehicle to present the inner workings of their minds, especially in films that look to tackle severely important issues through abstract means. Valerie and Her Week of Wonders does contain a fair bit of wonder, but it lacks a strong final third, dragging it down from being a beacon of the New Wave movement to feeling more like a notional meditation on various skittered ideals.