Through the Regime’s Looking Glass

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders

a film directed by Jaromil Jireš
Criterion Collection, DVD $29.95; Blu-ray $39.95
Janus Films
A publicity still from Jaromil Jireš’s Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, 1970

It’s one of the ironies attached to Jaromil Jireš’s gleefully gothic and priapic film Valerie and Her Week of Wonders—recently released on DVD and Blu-ray by the Criterion Collection—that it was made just as Czechoslovakia succumbed to the gray strictures of “normalization” following the Soviet invasion in 1968. Aside from the folkloric nub of the story—in which a thirteen-year-old girl is initiated into the perilous world of adult desire—little about this fantasia reflects its time and place. Maybe that’s why, over the last forty-five years, it has peeled off from its historical moment and been embraced by foreign audiences, who have kept it in circulation because of how irresistibly it combines some very soft-core delights with the trappings of horror. One of the pleasures of watching Valerie now, in fact, is seeing it through this bifocal lens: as the lyrical product of filmmakers who dodged certain limits on their freedom of expression, and as a semi-obscure cult film appreciated more wryly in the West.

Early in Valerie, our young heroine learns that her pearl earrings are charged with some powerful witchcraft, and that her grandmother (her only guardian) wants to sacrifice her to regain her own youth. So far, we might be safely in the realm of the Czech fairy tale, or pohádka, films that were popular in the 1960s and 1970s throughout the Soviet bloc and especially in their home country: nostalgic folk stories that were reliably inoffensive to the Communist Party. Supporting that view is Valerie’s setting, a town in a vaguely baroque nineteenth century that seems still in thrall to reassuring feudal certitudes.

But in Jireš’s 1970 fantasy, the dark forces that have gained entry to grandmother’s house have a perverse character, and the film resists the plain story line you’d expect of a pohádka. In taking a traditional subject (of a sort deemed more than acceptable by the tsars of socialist realism) but treating it as a field for stylistic experiments, Jireš was flouting the regime’s formulas. This should be kept in mind as one absorbs the film’s loony particulars: a polecat-faced vampire, named simply Polecat—campily aware of his own hideousness—arrives in the village and does his best to reclaim the family seat. Valerie’s grandmother becomes a vampire herself, hoping to win back her former lover, a sinister Catholic priest.

Thanks to her magic earrings, Valerie manages to slip from the priest’s clutches when he tries to molest her, eludes her grandmother’s fangs, cures (by means of a tender lesbian tryst) another young woman who had been bitten, and survives a burning at the stake. There’s also a handsome young man named Eaglet who gets her out of several sticky situations, and whether he’s her brother or her boyfriend remains ambiguous.

Investing these fantastic elements is a kind of pagan lyricism:…

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