Saturday, October 1, 2011

European Horror Month Part 6: Valerie and her Week of Wonders

Okay, so this is a late entry, but let's just pretend September has 31 days and get over it.  The final film in my less-than-prolific European Horror Fest is a 1970 Czech film directed by Jaromil Jiles and entitled: Valerie and her Week of Wonders. Although I'm not sure if this one is normally classified as a horror film, it has enough creepy, supernatural elements for me to classify it as one. It is also a fairy tale, a trippy piece of avant-garde psychedelia, and a vampire film. Above all, it is deeply, wonderfully weird and often unintentionally hilarious.

Valerie and her Week of Wonders is a coming of age story about a 13-year old girl living with her grandmother and trying to come to terms with her sexuality in the face of a lecherous clergyman and a white-faced missionary/former bishop/vampire named The Weasel who needs her blood to restore his youth. The Weasel is also a former lover of her grandmother, who desires to live with him eternally as a vampire, and is willing to sacrifice Valerie to make it happen.

I won't even try to pretend to understand what's going on in this film. The first time I watched it, I was three or more sheets to the wind, and figured that was why I wasn't following the film's logic. But no, I truly makes no sense, which I suppose is intentional and makes the film more like a dream or fairy tale. The less I try to understand it, the more I like it.

The film has a confident, clever young heroine, a creepy villains, and an atmosphere that seamlessly veers from a gorgeous pastoral painting to a gloomy gothic underworld. The color palette is a stark, symbolic black and white, on which Valerie's red hair makes her the focus of every scene.

As I see it, Valerie and her Week of Wonders is all about the difficult journey into adulthood, and the conflicting emotions we have as our sexual nature is awakened. That said, it is difficult to descipher what the film is trying to say about it. Early on, Valerie watches as a group of four women frolic in a stream, kissing each other and slipping fishes down the front of their gowns. Seriously.

Slippery little suckers, aint' they?

A little later, she watches as one of these women gets it on with a strapping local man and a line of missionaries and nuns pass by, clearly offended by (and trying not to stare at) the sight. In the films most shocking, and yet profoundly hilarious sequences, Valerie narrowly escape being raped by a priest.

The Weasel is one of these missionaries, who gathers all the town's virgins for a sermon, the whole of which goes like this:

Sermon for Virgins: "I, a servant of God, a missionary, have come to give you, dear maidens, my support and a lesson for life. Do you know what you are, oh virgin? You are the touch of an alabaster hand. An unhalved garnet apple. A boat full of leaves, an unfurling rose. The coarse hand that touches your breast will leave an ineffaceable mark upon it. But I am here with you. In place of your guardian angel. I bless your lips, your breast, your lap. Amen."

And just think about the main villain's name. The Weasel. If there's a more phallic mammal, I don't know what it is. And add to that this choice bit of dialogue: "The weasel has violated your lips." Creepy.

It seems pretty clear that the film is an indictment of the sexual hypocrisy of religious instituions, and it is, yet the message gets convoluted by scenes like the one is which Valerie shares a bed with a recently deflowered woman who has just married a man much older than her and regards it as the end of all her hopes and dreams. Upon waking, she and Valerie start kissing, and you get the sense that the missionaries aren't the only lecherous old men who have an eye for young flesh. The director seems to be getting off on shooting erotic, and yes, nude scenes featuring a 13-year-old girl.

Jaromil Jires, you lecherous old perv!
Usually, you can discern a film's message by its ending. But not here. What you get instead is a bizarre montage of the characters frolicking in nature and striking weird poses. It's as if the director had no idea how to tie up the story and said, "Fuck it, let's just make it confusing so it will seem deep and no one will admit that they didn't get it." Even as I type this, I have to wonder whether I'm being dismissive and maybe a few dozen repeat viewings will open up a dimension of the film I never realized was there. That's what art films are all about, right?

For all that, Valerie and her Week of Wonders is a beautiful, if creepy, piece of work. It is steeped in symbolism, some of it heavy-handed like the constant use of black and white to represent virginity and purity vs. corruption. It is thought-provoking, not always in ways the director intended, I'm sure, but certainly worth a watch, if only to see the paedophile priest expose his hairy chest and tooth necklace.

1 comment:

  1. "let's just make it confusing so it will seem deep and no one will admit that they didn't get it."

    That describes a lot of art! I think most of the time no one will admit that they have no clue what's going on. They're too embarrassed not to know, so they just make up some weird interpretation! Good for you for admitting that you didn't know what was happening. This movie sounds so bizarre and that priest is just nasty!


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