sat 04/04/2020

Blu-ray: Valerie and Her Week of Wonders | reviews, news & interviews

Blu-ray: Valerie and Her Week of Wonders

Blu-ray: Valerie and Her Week of Wonders

Blood-drenched Czech fairytale, still startling 50 years on

Life is a dream: Jaroslava Schallerová as Valerie

Jaromil Jireš’s Valerie and Her Week of Wonders contains many mysteries, the main one being exactly how such a strange and subversive film could have been released in 1970, so soon after the Prague Spring. That the author on whose 1935 novel the film was based was a loyal member of the Communist Party helped, avant-garde poet Vítězslav Nezval even heading the Czechoslovak government’s Film Unit in the 1950s.

Jaromil Jireš’s Valerie and Her Week of Wonders contains many mysteries, the main one being exactly how such a strange and subversive film could have been released in 1970, so soon after the Prague Spring. That the author on whose 1935 novel the film was based was a loyal member of the Communist Party helped, avant-garde poet Vítězslav Nezval even heading the Czechoslovak government’s Film Unit in the 1950s. Splashes of blood seen dripping onto daisies signal the start of 13-year old Valerie’s transition to adulthood; what follows is a deeply peculiar, visually sumptuous fantasy.

That we’re witnessing an Alice-style extended dream is never in doubt, though Jireš depicts his heroine’s sexual awakening in a very matter-of-fact fashion. What Valerie, played by the 13 year old Jaroslava Schallerová, sees and endures is fantastical but feels very real, a slippery saga of stolen magical earrings, vampires and transmogrification. Familiar fairy tale tropes pop up, including missing parents and sinister relatives. The film’s only relatively ‘normal’ scenes show Valerie’s life with her grandmother (Helena Anýzová), a tall, austere figure with a pale face and alarming hairstyle. Anýzová also takes on the role of the vampiric Elsa and of Valerie’s mother, her voice dubbed by different actors.

Blu-ray: Valerie and Her Week of WondersThe questions pile up along with the incongruities. Is Petr Kopriva’s Orlik actually Valerie’s brother? How do the vampires manage to survive in daylight? Jireš deliberately makes it hard for us to tell, cutting abruptly between scenes so that we’re as bemused as our smiling heroine. Which was surely deliberate; dreams shouldn’t be easy to follow. Many of the images are difficult to forget, from hanging corpses to grotesque clergy, and a scene where Valerie is about to be burned at the stake is terrifying. Jireš’s vampires owe a clear debt to Murnau’s Nosferatu. The horrors are offset by the glowing warmth of Jan Čuřík’s cinematography, much of the action taking place in bright sunlight. Schallerová’s Valerie is such a positive force, making it hard to imagine that she’ll actually come to serious harm. This is essential viewing, and one of the great 20th century fantasy films.

Second Run’s transfer is clean and colourful, the restored soundtrack showcasing Luboš Fišer’s eclectic, spare score. We get a generous selection of bonus features. Michael Brooke’s introduction is informative, and there’s a choice of two separate commentaries, the one by Peter Hames and Daniel Bird being the one to play. There’s a fascinating interview with the still-luminous Jaroslava Schallerová recorded in 2006, revealing that she auditioned for the role without her parents’ consent, and that shooting was unduly protracted due to appalling weather and heavy rain. Three early short films by Jireš are included. Sweetest and funniest is 1959’s Uncle, where a soft-hearted burglar is outwitted by a toddler.

@GrahamRickson

 

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