Music Features

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders has been described as the film that killed the Czech New Wave. That is unfair and inaccurate, as it was the 1968 Soviet invasion that killed the Czech New Wave and sent many of its best artists running for less restrictive pastures. Jaromil Jires was the filmmaker that stayed behind. His 1970 gem did not destroy the Czech New Wave, but it did mark a shift away from the acerbic social dramedies that had characterized his work, towards a more apolitical, lyrical approach in later films, towards more conventional adaptations and work in television and theatre as his career progressed (he eventually ended up interviewing his classmate Milos Forman for a television documentary series he made on great international directors). It turned out that blatantly critical socio-political statements were not as acceptable under Soviet rule as before. Valerie had to sneak the criticism into what carries the feel of a dark fantasy, a fairy tale for adults, depicting the feverish imaginations of the titular adolescent in the week after she has her first period. With its conspiratorial phantasmagoria directed at an innocent protagonist by pillars of all cherished institutions, however, Jires delivers a critique against civilized oppression that is only more potent for its generality. Valerie was not the death knell for the Czech New Wave, but its last gasp.

The film strikes an interesting point somewhere between the exhilarating possibilities of the liberating European messiness of the sixties and the Technicolor saturation of a lurid horror or sex epic of the seventies, taking the best in cinematographic ingenuity from the two of them. There are no particularly special effects in Valerie and it all occurs in a palpably real space. That space happens to be a 13 year old's elaborate delusional(?) perception of witchcraft and vampirism among her elders. The colours run in rich reds and golden yellows, and cold foreboding places where bad things happen are frosty blue and grey (Valerie's bedroom is spotless white, but for how long?) As juice/blood drips on flowers and objects of desire are detained in flowing water and cherries are consumed, the story and imagery could be said to be crammed full of dimestore Freudian imagery. This is not a nit to pick, however, for that is precisely the language Valerie speaks (and it wouldn't be a whole language if there weren't some credence to these overripe symbols). The film rarely descends into an objectively "real" world, only pausing briefly in the morning for a dash of harsh sunlight before Valerie discovers greater dangers and depths from the family, the church, the vampires, (the government is not explicitly mentioned, necessarily). Ultimately, the film crafts a whimsical fantasy/horror that perfectly captures the delirium of a pubescent point most can understand when one is overwhelmingly and suddenly sexualized but unaware of exactly what sex is, and powerfully alienated from authority, with an extended conclusion that is nothing short of a beautiful realization of the imagined possibilities of the newly arousing world.

The great rediscovery factory Finders Keepers Records, who recently dug up stellar and almost lost releases by Selda, Jean Claude Vannier, and Mustafa Ozkent, went to a great deal of trouble to secure the first CD release of the Valerie score, a recording that was never widely released on vinyl initially. The soundtrack, a series of short cues of folk themes, chamber pieces, processionals, incantations and other organic concoctions, is a big part of the film's effectiveness. There is a certain thinness to everything that could be blamed on limited resources but contributes such to the spell that it might as well be intentional if it is not. Moods alternate between the pastoral and serene to the shocking and creepy. Great lengths are given over to ominous choral passages, only to be interrupted by a purposefully frighteningly bizarre blurt or sharply contrasting cues. Odd amalgamations of noises occur and are disrupted with little notice, eventually creating a sensation of constant disorientation and uncertainty balanced with flights of pleasure bound to be interrupted. It is no wonder the kids in Broadcast love this movie so much.

Both the film and album Valerie and Her Week of Wonders are discoveries to be prized by the appreciator. The movie is something of a wonder (just like menstruation), perfectly enchanting in its own fairy tale way, and providing an overlooked stepping stone from the nonchalant, quiet, gentlemanly Surrealism of Bunuel to the abrasive textural sound symphonies and complete dream immersion of David Lynch. The music gives an idea of the ramshackle, idiosyncratic European cinematic aura that so many bands have fetishized over time. I can't stress enough, however, the pleasure of going through a parade of statutory sexuality with vampires, creepy music, and impeccable Eurocinematic aesthetic.