Tanya Krzywinska examines one of the most surreal and unforgettable
fantasy-horror films of Czech cinema, probing Valerie a týden divů for its mythic connections and allegorical import.
A fantastic fairytale
"Maiden, do you know what you are...?"
Jaromil Jireš' Valerie a týden divů (Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, Czechoslovakia, 1970) is one of those haunting, dream-like films that once seen is difficult to forget. The sexual awakening of adolescent Valerie (Jaroslava Schallerová) provides the major theme, ornately rendered as a symbol-soaked gothic fairytale. Elements drawn from the horror genre operate in conjunction with the type of gentle soft-core art imagery that can be found in other European sexual initiation films of the 1970s, such as Emmanuelle (1974), Bilitis (1977) and The Story of O (Histoire d'O, 1975).
This heady generic mixture is well-suited to the film's focus on the ambiguous status of various thresholds and the mysteriousness of awakening sensuality, conflicting desires and duplicity. One of the seductive attractions of Valerie a týden divů is its magical trance-inducing quality. The carefully-crafted sets, the hypnotic harpsichord, flute and choir-based music, and the predominance of thematically significant white in the colour co-ordinated palette all add to the film's particular audio-visual ambience of artifice. In addition to the use of elliptical editing, the crystalline quality of the photography is simply stunning, capturing in some scenes the beauty of early summer light sparkling on water and illuminating the pastoral landscape, which is set against dark, decaying, cobweb-strewn crypts.
The film bears some resemblance in stylistic terms to the East German fairytale films made by DEFA (such as The Singing Ringing Tree [Der Singende, klingende Bäumchen, 1957]), sharing the use of fantastic, almost surrealist imagery. That the film makes the sexual subtext of many fairytales overt in transgressive terms is perhaps what attracted UK-based Redemption, a company that specialises in sexploitation and horror films, to release the film on video in 1994. With its non-linear story structure and characters that transform in the blink of an eye, Valerie a týden divů twists and turns much in the irrational manner of a dream. Events unfold from Valerie's subjective point of view, beginning when her brother (if he really is her brother) steals the pearl earrings she inherited from her apparently dead mother. The theft coincides significantly with the onset of her first period. From then on, Valerie is plunged into the strange world of adult desire, with its terrible and intriguing secrets.
Enigma and mutability
"Is there some secret in these earrings?"
Valerie's burgeoning sensuality is established in the opening credits: the camera lingers with fetishistic fascination on her mouth, face and hair. Variously, she tastes the bright water bubbling from a fountain, eats ripe cherries, nestles a dove against her chest and drinks in the scent of a bunch of small, white, wild flowers. Everything in Valerie's world becomes full of wonder, which she experiences in an invigorated and heightened manner. Like the heroines of pre-sanitised fairytales, she faces all the mysteries that come her way boldly and with wide-eyed curiosity.
Tailing the opening sequence is Valerie's contemplation of her bell-like earrings, which carry magical powers. While there are many enigmas in the film, the earrings seem somehow key to the events which follow. Their symbolic significance is underlined early on, as the aural motif that represents them (a series of sing-songy notes played on the glockenspiel) also accompanies the fall of a few drops of Valerie's first menstrual blood onto a daisy. The earrings have a central place in the film's "family romance." Valerie's white-haired, smooth-faced grandmother tells her to get rid of them, as they are a danger to her; she claims to have bought them from the vampire-priest-constable who acts—albeit slightly ambiguously—as the villain of the film (and who may or may not be Valerie's father).
Yet Valerie's brother (at one point Grandmother calls him an actor) states that the earrings will protect her from harm and that the vampire-priest-constable wants them back to sustain his vampire-life. But the status of the earrings is never made entirely clear; in keeping with the film's associative poetic structure, they evade any fixed, one-to-one correspondence of meaning. They do appear to keep Valerie from harm: protecting her from the sexual advances of the local priest, bringing her and the priest back to life, and preventing her from dying when burned at the stake. But, like almost everything else in Valerie a týden divů, the earrings have their own obscured and transformational agenda in symbolic and mythic terms.
Change, artifice and duplicity—nothing here is what it seems—also finds resonant embodiment early in the film when a carnival comes to town. Valerie looks out onto the street to see a masked figure wearing a black cloak; removing his animal mask, the figure reveals a hideous nosferatu face, grinning with an apparent malevolence that causes Valerie to gasp and call him a monster. The mask is replaced and again taken away to uncover the face of a handsome young man. In this topsy-turvey, artifice-laden world, no one is who they seem to be; everyone wears different faces, a device that can be said to express the duplicitous and endlessly deferred nature of desire.
Variously throughout the course of the film, old age turns into youth, piety turns to lust, evil becomes the object of pity, death turns to life and back again, fathers turn into monsters, Valerie's grandmother becomes a wanton vampire, and innocence gives way to knowledge (it is worth noting that an image of Adam and Eve can be seen at the beginning and end of the film, that Grandmother's mirror carries the same image and that Valerie is often shown eating apples). Angela Carter's phrase, "mutability is having a field day," applies so very aptly in relation to this unsettled and unsettling film.
"When you awake, my love, keep your secret safe."
At the source of the film's originality is its imaginative-mythic construction of the subjective world of a girl on the borders of becoming woman. Following the breadcrumb path laid down by surrealism, this rite of passage is inflected by psychoanalytic-based ideas of the unconscious as a reservoir of enigmatic overdetermination, dissemblement and creativity. Valerie's increased awareness, born in part from the tangible materiality of her body's new rhythm, reveals adult sexuality as an intriguing masquerade of desire. As with Neil Jordan's The Company of Wolves (1984), Valerie's wondrous world is manufactured as the product of a self-tailored fairytale that expresses the particularities and changes in perspective that accompany her burgeoning adolescent sexuality.
Soon after attending a rather strange, lustful sermon given by the vampire-priest-constable in the local church to a group of maidens all dressed in pristine white dresses, Valerie encounters the vampire-priest-constable in the street. Of her own free will and in the name of pity, but driven by curiosity, she enters his "kingdom"—replete with captured songbird and smoking cauldron. He forces her to look through a hole carved into an engraving of a demon (shot through a keyhole-shaped mask), and Valerie sees her formerly pious grandmother in a state of sexual agitation. With a dress torn to reveal not very grandmotherly breasts, and pleading with the priest for sexual attention, Grandmother flagellates herself at his feet.
Rescued from this shocking sight by her brother, Valerie mutters "I'm asleep and dreaming all this" as he carries her away. This is a perverse and overdetermined scene, with the putative demon-father (the vampire-priest-constable) forcing daughter-Valerie to watch her mother/grandmother (she is positioned in the film as both) indulge in, from Valerie's perspective, mystifying sexual behaviour with the missionary priest. While this is not exactly the primal scene, it nonetheless resonates with psychoanalytic-based ideas of the fantasy of seeing or overhearing parental sex: a fantasy that relates to the enigma of origins. The erotic charge of many sex-based films trades on the promise of seeing the secret sexual life of others: Valerie a týden divů confronts this secret with knowing and contrived reflectivity.
As Freud argues in his 1909 essay "Family Romances," it is common for children to fantasize about family intrigues and secrets. Jean Laplanche expands on this idea by suggesting that the coded speech and actions of family members present enigmas to children that have their impetus in a drive to knowledge. These putative, puzzle-laden messages become repressed and thereby structure unconscious fantasy, only to re-emerge in retrospective form during adolescence. The sexual dimension of the family romance is given shape within Valerie a týden divů in fairytale terms, and Valerie's imaginative relations with her brother and the vampire-priest-constable touch base with Oedipal and incestuous desires (and their prohibition).
In accordance with Freud's central notion that fantasy is subject to the distortions of the primary process, the Oedipal connection becomes diffuse here, subject to disavowal. It is never clear that Valerie's brother is indeed her brother, for example, or that the vampire-priest-constable is her father. They are both objects of Valerie's desire (as she is the object of their desire), yet to keep such a pretty game in play, these potential sexual relationships are invoked only to be deferred. That all the central characters in Valerie's world do not have definitive, stable identities locates that world as subjective artifice. Valerie imagines a range of scenarios in which her family members are endowed with magical powers, their status inflated to fairytale proportions, all along the lines of Freud's family romance.
A crucial interaction takes place between Grandmother and the vampire-priest-constable that reveals another aspect of the Oedipal family romance around which this feux d'artifice spins. Observed by the hidden Valerie, Grandmother asks the vampire-priest-constable to restore her former beauty. He promises to do so only if she gives back the house he gave her. She claims that this is problematic as Valerie would be disinherited, but the demonic vampire-priest-constable exploits the tension between her conflicting maternal and self-gratificatory desires. After signing a Faustian pact, Grandmother is restored to beauty as a vampire and takes on the exact guise of Valerie's mother as shown in a portrait. At first she dissembles as Valerie's cousin, a guise soon dropped, and then attempts to seduce her son/grandson.
Fearing that Valerie has usurped her in the affections of both the Constable and her son (?), she sets out to destroy Valerie and drink her blood. This (grand)mother-daughter rivalry is much the same as that found, subtextually, in the Snow White tale (made overt in Michael Cohn's 1997 film, Snow White: A Tale of Terror). In both texts, there is a competition of beauty and power that circulates around the figure(s) of the father. Yet the difference in Valerie a týden divů is that Grandmother, according to the film's emphasis on mutability, oscillates between a desire for sexual attention and power on the one hand and a concern for Valerie on the other. Moreover, according to the illogical nature of fantasy and the Freudian "return of the repressed," Grandmother's death is only temporary.
Like many fairytales, Valerie's wondrous world is rife with the seductions and aggressions born of family relationships, a factor that continues to give Jireš' film thematic relevance. Added to this is the way the film constructs adult sexuality as strange, mysterious and enigmatic: the people we think we as children know so well turn out to have dark, bestial desires that undermine our earlier idealisation of them. Lorna Sage writes that "we're obsessed with origins and originality, but though the womb in our heads/the Wunderkammer is indeed full of amazing things, the myths and the magic are of our own contrivance... Demystify motherhood, and you abolish the last hiding place for eternity." While Sage is referring to the work of Angela Carter, her observation applies equally well here. Within Valerie a týden divů, fantasy maps childhood monsters onto the sphere of family relationships: the mother figure is desanctified to the point of transforming into a green-eyed vampire, made murderous from jealousy. A rare event in mainstream cinema, she becomes, crucially, a desiring agent in her own right.
"Publishing houses and film studios were placed under new direction. Censorship was strictly imposed, and a campaign of militant atheism was organized."
It is likely that for most Western viewers the appeal of Valerie a týden divů lies primarily in its striking visual style and eroticised family melodrama. The mythic and fairytale aspects of the film, framed as they are through psychoanalytic concepts of fantasy and the Oedipal relation, does tend to universalise its major rite of passage theme in what can appear to be essentialised, gendered terms. But what of the more localised industrial, cultural and political context in which the film was produced?
Valerie a týden divů was made during the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia, when the national film industry was heavily censored in an attempt at minimising widespread burgeoning dissent. While it is all too easy to oversimplify the relationship between theme and broader historical events, I would suggest that there are certain aspects of the film that resonate with the cultural context in which it was produced.
Relating more specifically to the context of Soviet domination is the film's treatment of organised religion, namely Catholicism, the country's predominant faith. In accordance with Soviet manoeuvres to enforce atheism, Valerie a týden divů embraces an anti-Catholic stance, particularly in relation to sexual morality. This factor enabled the film to tap a wider, "hip" audience in the West that was inclined towards greater sexual permissiveness and sought liberty from enforced reverence (something that also informed Surrealism's mischievous anti-Catholicism).
Throughout the film, each of the characters connected to Catholicism (the devout grandmother, missionary priest and vampire-priest-constable) are shown to be playing with double moral standards. Soon after a speech about saving a "negro" woman from the sins of the flesh, the vampire-priest-constable enters Valerie's pristine white room, tearing away his cassock to reveal a necklace composed of jagged animal teeth, before he tries to rape her. The message is clear: bestial desire lurks behind pious appearance. Saved by the earrings, the Priest commits suicide, only later to be (incidentally) resurrected by Valerie, after which he burns her as a witch because she "tempted" him. These examples indicate the film's playful attack of the repressive, distorting and colonising values of Catholicism. Like Grandmother, the vampire-priest-constable is a duplicitous hypocrite who preaches one thing yet does another. The defamation of the priestly father, however, has further resonance that might be read as a tacit critique of the contemporary regime.
Using tropes derived from the broader, contemporary, pop cultural fascination with devils, witch burnings, vampires, corrupt priests and duplicitous parents, Valerie a týden divů seems to carry a veiled critique of Soviet domination of Czech culture. In 1968, and under the Warsaw pact, the Soviet authorities took active steps to stamp out increasing anti-communist activism (Czechoslovakia's history is full of occupying forces and it had only a short period of independence between World War I and 1939, until 1991 when Soviet authority collapsed). Correlations are fuzzy—understandably so given the monitored context in which Jireš was working—but the allegorical approach to repression and power struggles in the film resonates with contemporary struggles between liberal reformism and Soviet repression. Masquerading as a slightly titillating fairytale of becoming woman, we might extrapolate from Valerie's fantasy a metaphoric rendition of willful Czechoslovakia seeking freedom and difference from the tryanny of several successive monstrous fathers: Hitler, Stalin, Brezhnev. As Valerie herself says towards the end of the film: "Would that this witching might end."
One of my strongest impressions when seeing this film for the first time was its similarity to The Company of Wolves, which Jordan directed from a story by Angela Carter. Carter's revisionary fairy- and folktales collected in The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories (1979) share with Valerie a týden divů the same heady, symbol-soaked assemblage of lush sexual imagery, best emblemised by the shared image of a flower transformed from fresh virginal white to blood red. Jireš' film was screened at the National Film Theatre in London soon after it was made, and according to Roz Kaveney, Carter was present and impressed with it. Jireš' and Carter each make the rite of passage into sexuality the very centre of their tales. Both have heroines who "run with the tigers" (or wolves; in the case of Valerie—the weasel), rather than becoming their sacrificial victims. Valerie is the putative origin of events, so not only does she run, in her fantasy, with the tiger: she is the diegetic author of this running.
In its baroque allegory of transformations and mutability, Valerie a týden divů provides a precursor to more recent horror-fairytale combination films that focus on females. Riffing as they do on the becoming-woman, rite of passage-into-sexuality theme, Snow White: A Tale of Terror and Ginger Snaps (2000) are perhaps the most obvious examples here. Reading back and forth, Jireš' film is an important, and critically neglected, precursor to recent developments in the horror genre, particularly with the dominance of the "final girl" character and the active targeting of horror to female audiences through witchcraft and fairytales, as indicated, for instance, by The Craft (1996), Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) and Practical Magic (1998).
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