It’s one of the ironies attached to Jaromil Jireš’s gleefully gothic and priapic Valerie and Her Week of Wonders 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 but 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 czars 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 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 has 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 gothic particulars is a kind of pagan lyricism: Valerie’s own body clock—the onset of her menses—is what sets the story ticking, and her flower-shaped earrings (a symbol of her femininity) repeatedly vanquish everyone else’s wicked intentions. That’s one reason the movie’s color design is so vibrant: every time Valerie nibbles on a cluster of the red currants that seem to be ever within reach, we’re reminded of her place in the natural order. And yet nature keeps being subverted: more than one resurrection takes place, and the cobwebs in the crypt appear entirely nonbiodegradable (and are lavished on the set with a zeal that’s in tune with the maximalist manner of the film).
Valerie jolts along with the logic of a hallucination, its more conventional vampire plot intercut with odd visions and heightened by a soundtrack of choral chants and disembodied dialogue. Sometimes these dislocations bring us intimately close to Valerie herself, from various appealing angles, and on a second or third viewing you see how these shots often punctuate moments of conflict, as if Valerie’s inner equanimity were guiding the course of events.
More often, we’re forced to assimilate weirder visual fragments, like bees swarming a sculpture of Adam and Eve, or shirtless men attacking a fountain with massive whips, or nubile maidens bathing in a river or washing their laundry (either way, getting wet). Sometimes within a single frame the mise-en-scène appears disturbingly skewed—during Valerie’s picnic with her grandmother and the priest, for instance, the lake behind them seems to flow by like a river seen from above, or like one of Andrei Tarkovsky’s eerie aquatic reveries. It’s as if the narrative joints that traditionally string a film together have been scissored away, leaving a sense not just of the uncanny but also of something formally primitive and uncontainable.
It can’t be a total coincidence that other “serious” directors in the late 1960s were also taking detours into the mythic zone where sex and horror (or “horror”) meet—in 1967, Roman Polanski released his delightfully sardonic The Fearless Vampire Killers, and in 1968, Ingmar Bergman his oddly literalistic Hour of the Wolf. In the early 1970s, Angela Carter saw Valerie in London, and something of its unabashed lyricism is reflected in the 1984 film adaptation of her short story “The Company of Wolves,” deepening its dry wit. If artists in the 1960s rediscovered sex as a liberating force, this heightened their sense of its strangeness and power to terrify. (In Hour of the Wolf, one of the first things Max von Sydow’s character says about the demons haunting him is that he suspects one of them “is homosexual.”)
For Jireš, too, filming what you might call a surreal polychrome coming-of-age vampire costume drama was a departure, to say the least. He was one of the most intelligent young directors of the Czechoslovak New Wave, and his debut, The Cry (1963), is considered the first of the formally inventive films that would emerge from the state-funded Barrandov Studios in Prague, by directors also including Miloš Forman, Věra Chytilová, František Vláčil, and Jiří Menzel.
A central tension plays out among the best Czechoslovak movies made between 1963 and 1969: some are essentially satirical—ruefully realistic comedies or tragicomedies, epitomized by Forman’s mercilessly funny The Firemen’s Ball (1967) and Menzel’s wry and humane Closely Watched Trains (1966), which might be the urtext of Wes Anderson’s early aesthetic—whereas others are lyrical to the point of stylistic anarchy, such as Chytilová’s manic, narrative-defying Daisies (1966) or Vláčil’s stark immersion in the lawless Middle Ages Marketa Lazarová (1967). Both approaches met with censure from the regime, but it’s the satirical films that now appear more politically defiant. Appreciating the stylistic subversions for what they were is more challenging, but it helps to know how the movies were received at the time.
Had Jireš not released Valerie in 1970, he would probably be remembered today as a filmmaker in the satirical vein, with a taste for poetic juxtapositions and vertiginous edits. The Cry, for example, takes a conventional subject—a young couple whose first child is about to be born—and, through a mosaic of flashbacks and cuts between the man’s and woman’s separate experiences on the day of the birth, finds its real subject in social alienation. But the satirical ambitions of Jireš’s first feature are overwhelmed by the domestic sweetness of its main plotline. He was dismayed, he told an interviewer in the spring of 1968, that after The Cry “responsible people in cinematography labeled me a harmless dreamer . . . I couldn’t have continued in that direction.”
The Joke (1969), Jireš’s next feature, turned out to be the era’s most savage satire of life under Communism. Based on Milan Kundera’s 1967 novel, the movie (whose script was developed in collaboration with Kundera) focuses on Ludvík Jahn, a man whose youthful quip at the party’s expense gets him condemned to six years of hard labor, and who later tries and fails to avenge himself. The film’s most remarkable feature is Jireš’s scalpel-like cutting between Jahn in the 1960s, disillusioned and detached, and his memories of the 1950s; in plotting his revenge, he seems to be interacting seamlessly with the people who betrayed him years before. If Jireš hoped to transcend the dreaminess of The Cry, he succeeded: following a brief release, The Joke was banned for two decades. But he’d already lined up his next feature project: in late April 1968, the screenplay of Valerie and Her Week of Wonders had been approved, and for some reason production went ahead despite the debacle that had attended The Joke.
The common thread running through Jireš’s first three feature films—and bursting out in a more lyrical aesthetic in Valerie—is his reluctance to lead the viewer along a singular path through the story. The abrupt editing style that heightens each character’s viewpoint in The Cry is deployed in The Joke to focus on one character’s predicament from two different points in time; in both cases, the sudden scene changes are aimed at giving a more acute, more accurate vision of reality. But in Valerie, a fable whose general outline is familiar, the quick and often disorienting shifts are intended to shatter any reliable sense of what is real and to lend the folkloric proceedings a mad, impish tone. Not long after The Joke’s release, Jireš was asked about his next project. He said that if he were following trends he saw in the theater, he’d probably dust off some prewar play for adaptation, but he didn’t think the country needed that kind of revival just then. Earnest nationalism could “wear out people’s sense of humor, which I think is the greatest gem we have. I’m not a very cheerful person myself, but I’d like to take advantage of the sense of humor that’s more evident in viewers, perhaps, than it is in me.”
Valerie appeared at a schizophrenic moment for the regime: while the party blacklisted most of the country’s best directors, it also wanted film production to continue and be perceived as successful. Secret police files from 1970 singled out Menzel and Jireš (surprisingly, given the response to The Joke) as the most likely of the New Wave directors to produce what was wanted: “accessible” films. But by the time Valerie premiered, in October 1970, its free-form surrealism was not appreciated. The regime’s most official statement, presented as a “review” in Rudé právo, the party’s newspaper, condemned the movie for being too arty and called for “other films, films for audiences, films for today, films for a socialist person.” The movie wasn’t banned outright, but an effort was made to bury it: when the Sydney Film Festival asked to screen Valerie in 1971, for example, executives at Barrandov decided to send them Karel Zeman’s Na kometě instead, a sweet little science-fiction film based on a novel by Jules Verne. Jireš was nevertheless permitted to make dozens more films, for television and the big screen, through the Velvet Revolution in 1989, and he continued working into the 1990s.
Valerie is based on a popular novel by the Communist poet Vítězslav Nezval. Born in Moravia in 1900, Nezval was active in the Prague avant-garde in the 1920s and 1930s. It wasn’t until the later 1930s that his allegiance swung vehemently toward Moscow and he broke with some of his old friends. In the more innocent 1920s, he had embraced the gothic themes popular among surrealists. He described his novel Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, which was published in 1935 but had been written some years earlier, as a “concretely irrational psychic collage freely borrowing from the genre of so-called pulp literature everything belonging to the nethermost regions of our unconscious.”
The jaunty tone in which Nezval deploys surreal, often violent images in his novel seems inspired by Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland—and translates in the movie to Valerie’s open and imperturbable manner. Jireš and Ester Krumbachová’s script follows Nezval’s novel closely—the sudden shifts in focus are there in the book as well—but Jireš dropped a number of causal links from the story, with the result that the movie seems even more dreamlike than the novel. (It’s also more illicit; in the book, Valerie is seventeen rather than thirteen years old.) One can see why the proponents of socialist realism were offended. Though there’s nothing overtly political in Valerie—aside, perhaps, from its Communist-approved distaste for men of the cloth—the film overflows with irrational longings and terrors. Valerie might be read as a campy scherzo on the theme of how, given the right conditions, ordinary private longings can become charged with social significance—whether they can bear the added freight or not.
Luckily, there’s little that Valerie can’t handle. Like Alice in Wonderland, Valerie is a forebear of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the other strong and oddball female characters who have rightfully claimed their place in popular culture in recent years. I suspect Jireš, like Alice’s and Buffy’s creators, hoped audiences would be both moved by his heroine’s loveliness and amused by the terrors she faces. Central to the film’s hypnotic charm is watching its irony and sincerity, which are braided together but never quite fused, push each other out of the way.