Some years ago, I happened upon a great book called 101 Horror Movies You Must See Before You Die, a small tome which talked about exactly what it sounds like. While I, a self-proclaimed horror aficionado, had seen quite a few of the films listed, there were several I hadn’t even heard of and so made sure to write them down to watch later.
One of the films I was never able to find until Criterion recently put it out on Blu-ray and on their Hulu collection. That film was the most dreamlike, symbolic, and strangest films I’d seen in a very long while, but what else do you expect from pre-repression Czechoslovakia? That film is called Valerie and Her Week of Wonders.
Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is a strange snapshot of a movie, made at almost the last moment in 1969/1970 before Czechoslovakia split into two halves, before art of this kind was summarily forbidden. It was co-written and directed by Jaromil Jireš, who adapted surrealist Vítězslav Nezval’s novel of the same name. It’s a movie that’s about coming-of-age and sexual awakening housed in a dreamlike story comprised of Czech folklore, vampires, animal spirits, religious guilt, and persecution. Sounds fun, doesn’t it?
The story begins with Valerie (played by 13-year-old Jaroslava Schallerová) sleeping in a gazebo, when a mysterious and spritely man comes and steals her earrings. When she wakes up and goes to investigate, she finds a horrifying bone-white man wearing a weasel mask. She gets scared and runs away. The next day, seemingly without a care in the world, Valerie swims in a pond when the thief’s arm suddenly appears and returns her earrings. Valerie goes home and speaks to her grandmother, a very, very pale woman of rather puritanical look, and asks when the missionaries are coming to the village.
Valerie and her grandmother then attend a wedding and the man from the night before (with the weasel mask) appears across the yard and stares at Valerie. She points the man out to her grandmother who recognizes the man and says he might be a former lover. The next day, when Valerie is practicing piano, she receives a letter saying there is to be a town meeting for all the virgins in the community (it’s apparently a thing that could happen back then) and she attends. Afterwards, the man who stole her earrings appears and reveals himself to be “Eagle” and tells her that the Weasel is a monster and she should not trust him.
This proves to be a good warning, because the Weasel soon shows Valerie that her grandmother is torturing herself for her former lover, a priest who presided over the virgin meeting. He’s a real gross guy and tries to seduce Valerie. Eagle is able to save her and tells her that Weasel is in love with her and gives the grandmother the ultimatum: if she sells him the home which is Valerie’s birthright, Weasel will make the grandmother young again, using Valerie’s blood. Which does happen. The grandmother gets younger and younger but, wouldn’t ya know it, is also now a vampire.
It’s not easy to try to describe the plot of a surrealist film, and honestly I’m only slightly sure what I described above is actually what was happening, but I can say that Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is visually and emotionally evocative even if the story is something I don’t fully understand. The movie is full of symbolism and shots that are paired together to make sense in a way beyond narrative logic. Vampire images are used to represent the dangers of going from innocence to experience and all of the horrible people a young girl like Valerie will have to meet as she grows up.
This whole story is full of visual cues pertaining to sexual awakening and the perils of doing so, in a world where monsters will come and try to exploit the pure. Valerie’s grandmother, whose appearance and overall vibe is very puritanical, becomes younger (it’s the same actress made to look super old and then slowly the makeup is taken away) when she gives in to her sexual desire for her ex-lover, who, it turns out, is a priest who wants to seduce Valerie right after extolling the virtues of, well, virtue. This priest represents the hypocrisy of perceived piety in circles like this.
It’s not even just men who Valerie has to contend with; at a certain point, Weasel deposits Valerie in the bedroom of the woman she sees get married earlier in the film. This woman is also pretty young, but not 13 like Valerie. There, the woman also attempts to seduce the young girl while Weasel and the newly-young vampire-granny watch. And it’s all even skeevier by our standards in today’s America because of how Valerie is leered at and groped by characters on screen (I’m sure it was meant to be gross by the filmmaker, they just could show more than our Western eyes are used to).
Perhaps the best visual depiction of Valerie’s sexuality coming to life is in the image of a daisy, a persistent item in the film, being doused with blood. At once it calls forth themes of physically becoming sexually mature as well as the idea of tainting something innocent and virginal with the redness of adulthood. Valerie’s not a little girl anymore, but it might have been better if she had stayed that way. This images says a lot without having to over-explain anything, the hallmark of a surrealist fantasy.
Valerie and Her Week of Wonders isn’t a horror movie, but it uses the visual iconography of the genre to convey its message. At its heart, it’s a dark fantasy, like most fairy tales, though instead of a big bad wolf or a wicked stepmother, the villains are those trying to exploit a girl who is only just becoming a woman, trying to push her too quickly into adulthood. I certainly had a lot to think about following this movie, which is quite the feat for a movie that’s only 77 minutes long. It’s on Hulu currently and if you enjoy surrealist fantasy, I would recommend it thoroughly. Just prepared to feel weird after.