Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970)

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*. This isn’t a personal favourite of mine, though I can see why some people really fall for it. I think it’s a beautiful period poem full of lyrical imagery. It’s just that I don’t see much else going on.
*. As I wrote the above I noticed that “period poem” could be interpreted in different ways. I meant “period” as in a costume drama. Though if you wanted to see it as an ode to menarche then there’s nothing stopping you. That’s clearly a big part of what’s going on.
*. In fact, interpretation of its symbolic language is, mainly, what Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is about. There’s a sort-of story (based on a surrealist novel), but as Peter Hames says in his video essay included in the Criterion DVD release, it’s really just “a flow of imagery, a set of resonances.”

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*. Does that bother you? For me it’s a question of degree. I found the symbolism frustrating: both too obvious and too obscure. At heart I see it as a coming-of-age tale, with Valerie being introduced, in various ways, to the world of adult sexuality. This is both something natural and enjoyable, as well as something scary and predatory. Angela Carter was taking notes.

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*. Just to take a couple of ambiguous examples that Hames throws out with regard to colour symbolism: (1) white is purity, obviously, and we are clearly meant to be overwhelmed by Valerie’s virginal bedroom. But white is also the paleness of death, the bloodless faces of the Polecat and Valerie’s grandmother. So how we read it depends on context; (2) red is blood and sex, so Hames says the red curtains of the carriage are meant to symbolize the womb. Well, maybe. But even if that is what the curtains are meant to represent, or suggest, I’m not sure what the larger meaning is. Does the carriage give birth to anything?

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*. Then there are the animals and animal names. We have birds (freedom? innocence again?), a horse (not sure about that one), a weasel (tricky little devil). Again one gets the sense that this is kind of obvious, and yet at the same time not very clear. Or perhaps what I’m trying to say is that there’s nothing more complicated being said than the most basic symbolic interpretation, which is itself broad enough to contain a range of different meanings.
*. As a final example, take the earrings. Obviously they’re meant to represent some kind of supernatural, protective power, but is that really symbolism or part of the story?

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*. I wonder what it was about lesbian vampires that so possessed the European art-house circuit at this time. Just the next year there would be Daughters of Darkness, Requiem for a Vampire, and Vampyros Lesbos. I’d put Valerie and Her Week of Wonders at the high end of this genre (that is, the least exploitative, not necessarily the best), but it’s still a familial relation.
*. Herzog must have seen this movie before making his Nosferatu, not just for the way the village is shot but for all the painting of white on white. The bat ears on the vampire go back to Murnau though.

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*. It looks very pretty in a fairy-tale kind of way, though I think Jaromil Jireš is overly fond of the high-angle shots and the staginess sometimes seems too much. The incest angle is interesting but I wish more had been done with it. As it is, the whole question of whether Valerie is being (sexually) threatened by her father or uncle or whoever is left up in the air. This is part and parcel of the vagueness I mentioned earlier. At some point you have to be more than merely suggestive and resolve some of the ambiguity. Without that grounding, we’re left with something as beautiful but light as dandelion seed.

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