It's been said that the best folk and fairy tales are those that deal with the passage from childhood to adulthood, from innocence to experience. It's significant in these stories that the passage is fraught with danger, with goblins and witches and monsters waiting at every turn to devour the child protagonists, turn them into beasts, or lock them in a tower forever. Clearly the monsters in these tales represent the dangers of the adult world directed at children, and the young heroes or heroines must find a way to avoid or overcome these dangers in order to survive long enough to join the ranks of the grown-up themselves. And as anyone who's read a few of the classic Grimm's fairy tales in their original, unexpurgated form can tell you, these stories pulled no punches--virgins were sacrificed, body parts were sliced off, villains were punished with glowing hot metal shoes that forced them to dance themselves to death, all while the now-safe princess watched approvingly. The happy-ending, everybody's-nice Disney tales most of us know are a relatively recent invention.
The 1970 Czech film Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is one such old-school fairy tale. Here the journey is explicitly one of a young girl from sexual innocence to sexual experience, and all the terrors and wonders that accompany that journey are represented in gorgeous, fantastical ways. It's a movie that's simultaneously beautiful and terrifying, intoxicating and confusing, disorienting and delightful--much like the journey its fairy tale plot represents.
The film opens with several dreamlike images of 15-year-old Valerie (played by luminous elfin beauty Jaroslava Schallerová, who was only 13 at the time) swimming, drinking from a fountain, and generally looking gorgeous and innocent. It's a really lovely opening, with soft focus cinematography and ethereal music setting off Valerie's angelic sensuality. We see right away that she is a girl on the cusp of sexual maturity, with the burgeoning physical characteristics of a woman but the carefree ignorance of a young child.
As soon as the credits are over the fairy-tale plot starts in earnest, as the bespectacled Orlik creeps into Valerie's greenhouse to steal the sleeping girl's pearl earrings. The earrings were a gift from Valerie's mother, who disappeared when Valerie was very young (perhaps even an infant), and have some magical qualities that make them important to a monstrous, pale-skinned monstrosity known only as "The Bishop." However, Orlik is smitten by Valerie's beauty and soon returns the earrings to her, earning the wrath of his pasty boss.
The movie's sexual themes are made explicit in the next scene as Valerie watches a group of sexually mature young woman bathing in a stream, kissing one another and giggling as they drop slippery fish down their see-through gowns! We see Valerie gazing longingly at the women's bodies, comparing her own flat chest to their voluptuous breasts, wishing that she looked like them. Valerie also watches as one of the girls writhes naked on a fallen log for obvious masturbatory purposes, and is later joined by a beefy lover for a rambunctious tête à tree. With this foretaste of dangerous, delicious knowledge fresh on her mind, Valerie returns home.
Valerie lives with her grandmother, a puritanical old woman who obviously resents Valerie for her youth and carefree innocence. When Valerie wants to go greet a troupe of actors who've come to their village, Grandmom refuses, insisting instead that they go to church to hear a group of missionaries report on their spiritual conquests. Valerie watches the actors arrive along with a wedding party for a young woman who has been betrothed to a wealthy old man. The bride is presented here and later as a sacrifice, youth given over to the lusts of the aged. Among the crowd Valerie glimpses the monstrous form of the Bishop, who catches her eye and leers with evil knowledge.
The horror aspects of the plot kick in at this point, as we learn that the Bishop is a vampire who needs young blood to survive. He meets with Valerie's grandmother, and the old woman makes a deal with the devil to sacrifice Valerie in order to regain her own lost youth. Valerie sees the vampire and her rejuvenated grandmother making the beast with two backs in an abandoned crypt to seal their bargain, a horrifying recreation of the tree scene from earlier. This is just one of the many instances in the film where innocence and experience are juxtaposed in both good and evil forms, and the effect is pretty powerful, even if the viewer is not always aware quite what is going on plot-wise.
We learn eventually that the Bishop is in fact Valerie's father, having seduced her mother years ago, making his relationship with Grandma and his desire for Valerie's blood slightly incestuous and even more uncomfortably evil. Furthermore Orlik is revealed as the Bishop's son as well, and thus Valerie's brother. As Orlik fights to protect Valerie from the Bishop and her newly vampiric grandmother, his own sexual desire for Valerie complicates things even further. Beset by these dangers, Valerie must rely on the magic of her mother's earrings and the kindness of strangers whose motives may be pure but probably are not.
Valerie rejuvenates the bride by sleeping with her in a scene that has strong erotic overtones but which I still wasn't quite sure was meant to be a lesbian love-in.)
The adults and authority figures in this film are all very predatory toward Valerie, again speaking to its fairy tale roots. The village priest attempts to rape Valerie in a weird and wonderful nightmare scene, and then orders her burnt at the stake as a witch when she refuses him. Flagellants attack Orlik and Valerie at a fountain, and there can be no confusion about the meaning of their whips and sweaty bodies. And even those who are ostensibly there to help Valerie are sometimes horrifying with their unknown motives--Orlik most especially, but also a strange, silent flower girl who presents bouquets to Valerie with a knowing, not-quite innocent look in her eyes. The pale makeup and lascivious leers the characters wear in certain scenes only add to the nightmare quality, the feeling that once sex enters the picture, no young girl is safe from anyone, even her friends.
This is a really wonderful movie, totally gorgeous and endlessly intriguing. The images that director Jaromil Jires packs into the frame will stick with you long afterwards, dreamlike and meaningful and sinister and beautiful all at the same time. Jaroslava Schallerová as Valerie is absolutely perfect, playful and childlike while at the same time achingly, sexually gorgeous. The Bishop would figure prominently in the nightmares of any young child who happened to see this movie, and the recurring theme of age feeding on youth for its own purposes resonates beyond the simple plot. And the movie's ending sequence, which starts out as an Alice in Wonderland conclusion but morphs into a weird parade of characters beckoning the now-experienced Valerie into the fraternity of adulthood (ending significantly on a bed in the middle of a dark, lush forest), wraps things up in a wonderful, moving way.
Lemora: a Child's Tale of the Supernatural, and indeed the two movies make excellent companion pieces, though I think Valerie has the edge in terms of imagery, acting, and all-around storytelling excellence. If you get a chance to see this one, don't pass it up. 3 Thumbs, easily, and worth the trouble it takes to track it down.