Two years after the Soviet Invasion had ostensibly brought an end to Czechoslovakia’s Spring of liberalized creativity, Jaromil Jireš made one of the country’s most liberated and creative films. Perhaps Valerie and Her Week of Wonders passed muster with the communist regime— which preferred social realism and had no compunction about banning art— because it is so openly critical of Catholic hypocrisy. However, the ideas behind Jireš’s film are not nearly as interesting as its images. In fact, its “plot” could have been pulled right out of the “Experimental Filmmaking 101” text book if it hadn’t been adapted from Vítězslav Nezval’s novel of the same name (written before Nezval, himself, joined the Party).
Valerie has just turned thirteen (daringly bumped down four years from her age in the novel to Jaroslava Schallerová’s actual age when starred in the movie). Having her first period, she’s now sexually mature and must traverse a Lewis Carroll-esque landscape constantly bouncing her between Catholicism and sexuality. Neither is very appealing in Jireš’s film. Religion offers nothing but lecherous clergy and suppressed desire. Sex Land is full of incest and nubile young women dropping live fish down their bloomers. Both sides are full of vampires and monsters to the point that Valerie and Her Week of Wonders functions as both surreal fantasy and full-blooded horror film. Valerie greets all this stuff in a constant state of bemused defiance, which renders her kind of likeable even if it never allows her more than a couple of dimensions. But depth is not really what you’ll find in her movie. Instead, you get a non-stop montage of arresting imagery. Valerie relaxes beneath an elaborate network of machinery. A parade of nuns passes a couple having abandoned al fresco sex (the only truly positive sexual image in the picture). Valerie’s grandma (a young woman in white death makeup) flagellates herself while the priest she loves eats chicken. He cowers inside of a birdcage as more people copulate outside it. Valerie reclines in a coffin of green apples. Creatures with joke-shop fangs peer from every corner. It’s all beautifully shot, and the picture’s economical running time keeps the style-over-substance issue from ever becoming a real issue. This is what great cult movies are made of.
It’s also what great Criterion Collection blu-rays are made of. Jireš’s dreamy images look exquisite in this new 4k restoration, which is devoid of a single blemish. Lubos Fiser’s soundtrack sounds excellent as well, and its enchantments make the inclusion of a proggy alternate soundtrack fairly superfluous, though the fifteen-minute featurette on this so-called “Valerie Project” is pretty fascinating. There’s also a fairly worthwhile monologue about the main feature from film scholar Peter Hames. However, the gem of the extras is a trio of Jireš’s short films, which seem to plot his move from relatively conventional filmmaking toward the pure avant-gardism of Valerie. The six-minute “Uncle” (1959) is touching, funny, and a perfect example of micro-storytelling, yet only experimental in its mild quotes from German Expressionism. “Footprints” (1960) has a more open-ended narrative. “The Hall of Lost Footsteps” (1960) walks much further out, chopping together horrifying holocaust and A-bomb footage with shots caught at a train station and romantic images rendered hopeless by what surrounds them. Its fractured timeline and jumbling of the beautiful and the terrible is an effective lead in to Valerie and Her Week of Wonders. Get it on Amazon.com here: