Posted by Nathaniel Thompson on January 11, 2017
I’ve been on something of an Eastern European tear lately with the release of the third (and final, for now) boxed set of “Martin Scorsese Presents” Polish classics, which had a tremendous run in New York and (in more scaled-down fashion) Los Angeles a while back. However, with all the attention Poland has been getting the past couple of years from cinéastes, let’s not forget that Czech films have an astonishing history as well and could easily merit a months-long retrospective. But where to start? If you’re browsing around FilmStruck, I’d like to point in the direction of one obvious and very irresistible candidate streaming on the Criterion Channel: Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970), a beguiling supernatural fantasy that also happens to be one of the finest films ever told from a young girl’s point of view.At the turn of the decade, Czechoslovakia was part of the Soviet bloc and still stinging from the Prague Spring of 1968, which ended a brief period of relative artistic and political liberty. That makes it all the more astonishing that this film was not only made but released, dealing as it does with a guilt-free atmosphere of sensuality and a joyous celebration of personal happiness — with vampires! Yes, it’s technically a horror film, adapted from a wonderfully free-associative novel by Vítezslav Nezval (The Emperor’s Nightingale) by director Jaromil Jires, who had just finished the politically volatile Milan Kundera adaptation The Joke (1969) and had contributed to the major anthology film, Pearls of the Deep (1966). Here we have a fleet and fantastic 76-minute dive into the village life of doe-eyed Valerie (Jaroslava Schallerová), whose strictly religious aunt (Helena Anýzová) has her protecting the family farm from a wild predatory weasel. Her passage to adolescence is triggered by a number of events including her sudden bond with a young persecuted boy named Eagle (Petr Kopriva), the arrival in town of a grinning, snaggle-toothed bald vampire (Jirí Prýmek) who wouldn’t be out of place in Salem’s Lot (1979), and the sudden disappearance of granny, who reemerges as a younger version of herself (or does she?) possibly under the influence of the bloodsucking newcomer.
If all that sounds creepy, well, it is a bit, but even those with no interest in terrifying fare will find many rich rewards here. You hear this film described as a fairy tale pretty frequently (which makes sense considering the novel is basically regarded as such in its native country), but it also has a borderline psychedelic stream of consciousness flow that sweeps you along from one set piece to another like a hormone-addled girl rapidly scribbling entries in a diary. Very little of it is “rational” in any traditional sense, but by the time you get to the cheerful, sunlight finale, it won’t matter. The casual approach to budding sexuality is a far cry from what you’d see in American films then or now, including a bemused attitude towards incest and grabby priests and some nonchalant nudity that’s unaffected by any sense of prudishness. Despite these little startling moments, the effect is so innocent that most teenagers could be shown this film without an issue.
I think it’s also fascinating how this film plays around with the conventions of European horror films of the time, particularly the way it uses settings like a creepy, cobweb-strewn crypt and a cavernous mechanical room to contrast with the vibrant natural world outside. These settings wouldn’t be out of place in any period Hammer horror films or other Euro horror chestnuts like Mill of the Stone Women (1960) or Black Sunday (1960), but the way they’re used is entirely different as we feel a threat that’s less reanimated corpses and more the old guard with its decayed, warped sexuality feeding on the vivacity of the young. The fact that the film doesn’t end in a big destructive climax like you’d expect is another aspect that separates this from the pack (and often confuses first-time viewers expecting a typical “exterminate the monsters” resolution); I guarantee you’ve never seen a finale quite like this one anywhere else. The end result is a truly timeless film (or perhaps more accurately, a film that exists outside of any strict time frame); it could have been shot yesterday or sixth years ago and it would still have aged like the fine cinematic wine it is today.
It took quite a while for this film to get much recognition stateside; it was a very minor cult success when it was released in the U.S. in 1974 (talk about belated!) and was treated horribly on home video for decades. Now you can watch it in prime quality, and it’s really a sight to behold. Take special note of that glittering music score by Lubos Fiser and Jan Klusák, whose infectious melodies form the perfect musical equivalent of those recurring images of tinkling earrings and shimmering water. Speaking of which, there’s also an alternate soundtrack out there created by a terrific psych-folk outfit called The Valerie Project, who took the film around the country with their live performance for a couple of years in the ’00s. It’s a very cool way to watch the film at home if you have the means (the album version is great, by the way, and perfectly matches the film), and hopefully the live version will come back around one of these days.
I’ll be taking a look at another favorite Czech classic next week, but for the time being, pay a visit to Valerie and see if this is to your liking. It’s a good gateway film to the wilder size of Czech cinema, which is more widely known here for prestigious (and equally recommended) fare like Closely Watched Trains (1966) or the early films of Milos Forman. Also, if you really enjoyed this film, be sure to check out some of the Jires short films available here including Uncle (1959), Footprints (1960), and The Hall of Lost Footsteps (1960), all of which will throw you down a cinematic rabbit hole from which you won’t want to emerge.
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