Saturday 29 October 2016

We Don't Go Back #5: Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970)

As the credits roll, the camera falls chastely in love.

Valerie drinks from crystal waters. Valerie picks flowers. Valerie sleeps; a boy steals her earrings, and then gives them back. She is luminous. She is perfect.

A spot of blood falls on a daisy as she walks on the grass. She tells her pious grandmother about it, and the woman, whose age is painted on her face, tells Valerie she is a woman now.
And Orlik, Eagle, the boy from the travelling players who stole her earrings, he is really in love with her, only his uncle Tchor, Weasel, the Constable, forced him to steal Valerie's earrings because their pearls contain the key to eternal youth.

Tchor is a vampire. Except he'll turn out to be Orlik's father and Valerie's too and that means Orlik is her brother.
The missionary who comes to dinner is creepy. He'll try to take advantage of Valerie, and she'll save herself by choking on a pearl and she'll die and then he'll be sorry.
Grandmother secretly loves the missionary but he's cruel to her, of course he is, and Grandmother will give anything to be young so she'll make a deal with the vampire and be young again and be a vampire too, and pretend to be Valerie's aunt and Valerie will be hiding in a library and see it all and the missionary hung himself out of guilt because Valerie died and it was his fault.
And the missionary, he'll be trapped in the tomb by the vampires but Valerie will rescue him, only he'll blame her and burn her at the stake for a witch.

But it will all change when Valerie's mother and father will come back, and they're beautiful and kind but they're also her vampire grandmother and Weasel in disguise.
But it's all right.

Nothing really touches her, and although the pleasures of sexuality are all around, and she imagines dalliances with boys and girls, and the vampires want her blood, she's still a child, really, and she doesn't really understand how the world works, and all these things, the tombs and the vampires and the predatory adults are part of a world of which she's not yet an inhabitant.
So she wanders insouciantly from daydream to daydream, and they all fade into one another and overlap, so you shouldn't really worry about making any sense of it, because all of the terrors of womanhood are not yet hers. But they will be soon. And she is invincible and fragile.

That's all.1

1Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (Valerie a týden divů) was directed by Jaromil Jireš. It was the last film to be made in the Prague Spring, a brief period of liberalisation in 1968 that was accompanied by a flowering of art and literature, before the Soviets cracked down on this sort of thing and the tanks came back to Czechoslovakia. And you get the feeling, looking at this film, that it happened in a time when it felt like anything could happen.

It wasn't banned by the Soviets like a lot of the other Prague Spring movies. Part of that is that the writer of the novel it's based on (Vítězslav Nezval) had become the head of the Ministry of Information after writing it, but I can't help thinking that's it's at least partly because it was too oblique for a Soviet film censor to be able to find anything subversive in it.

It's not a horror film. So why am I including an under-the-radar communist era art film in my folk horror watch? Well, it's influential, both on the aesthetics and content of the movement. Angela Carter counted the film as an inspiration, for example, and you can draw a line from Valerie and her Week of Wonders down to The Magic Toyshop and The Company of Wolves pretty clearly. Likewise, the soundtrack album became pretty popular with a lot of the leading lights in the 21st century folk revival (Espers, for instance) and from that through to the folk horror revival itself. So no, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is not strictly folk horror, but nonetheless, the film waits patiently at the roots of the genre.

Speaking of the soundtrack. You can't talk about this film without mentioning Luboš Fišer's amazing score, which has a cult following in its own right. I only heard of the film at all because a friend had a copy of the soundtrack album and I don't doubt I am not the only one. It's strange and pretty and oblique and a tiny bit disturbing, just like the film.

 And the film is a little disturbing, it is, although that's not because of the goofy vampire, but more because of the way it makes a boiling stew of vampirism, threatened rape, incest, and death into something pretty and sweet; and because of the way it makes a voyeur of the audience. Valerie observes much of what happens through holes in walls and bushes, behind fences and doors, and you're observing Valerie, and you sort of shouldn't be, because she's a girl on the first week of her period having vivid daydreams and it's not any of your business.

Does the film bear up beyond its aesthetic? Isn't the very nature of it a bit, you know, creepy? I don't know.

The whole voyeuristic nature of Valerie and Her Week of Wonders makes it an intensely uncomfortable watch. I think it's an important and influential film, and a beautiful film, and one I'll make the time to watch again, but I don't think I'm able to love it quite as unconditionally as many of its fans do.