Historically, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders can be seen as Czech New Wave director Jaromil Jires's attempt to run for cover and make a safe, inoffensive fantasy film in communist Czechoslovakia, after a brief flowering of liberty was curtailed by Soviet force in 1968. In doing so, he connected to a vein of fantasy in Czech film, including the trippy Cocteau-influenced visions of Juraj Herz, the Melies-like stagebound yarns of Karel Zeman, and innocuous parables like Vojtech Jasny's The Casandra Cat, which all tend to favour design and photographic qualities over narrative structure or political commitment.
But personally, I love Valerie & Her WOW in a way that I can't quite love her precursors, fabulous and beautiful though they are. Something inherent in Jires' character caused him to make a rather subversive, uneasy film, both innocent and sly, amusing and unsettling, which posits a very pretty girl (Jaroslava Schallerova) in some very pretty settings, and then creeps us out with a Nosferatu-like weasel-vampire, and a shape-shifting narrative where not only is nothing what it seems, but hardly anything is even consistent in its seeming.
Adapting a novel by a writer who had ties to the French surrealists, but also impeccable communist credentials, Jires and co-writer Ester Krumbachova (also resposible for the film's ravishing design) were granted surprising liberty to create a fluid, oneiruc, unstable fable under the eye of the censor.
Rivette might be evoked, as a storyteller whose explorations of magic and illusion follow rules which appear to be internally consistent, but which are never fully explained. Everything is as irrefutable, inexplicable and unreliable as a dream. Valerie herself is always a wide-eyed Alice in Wonderland, and her potential boyfriend is seemingly dependable... But we can't be too sure of any of this, since the rest of the cast seem to drift through different characterisations and disguises as if cut loose from the story, an ever-altering clockwork labyrinth which tries to shepherd them towards a credible happy ending by clicking its walls into new configurations as the dramatis personae morph, fugue, drop their masks or simply change their minds (one actor plays two different roles; also, two actors seem to be playing one role).
If there's a problem, it's one that never seems to actually be a problem for me: the pastoral fantasy is perhaps a little fey, a little sugary, even with the darker elements gnawing at the edges. But it never risks coagulating into Disneyland, because there aren't enough cosy narrative certainties. And while the narrative, which sometimes seems content to spiral around aimlessly for ten minutes at a time, before shooting off in some unprepared-for direction like a leaf on the breeze, doesn't have the forward drive even of a Miyazaki (to name another filmmaker who likes to leave some corners of his stories unilluminated), at least the pubescent girl at the centre of this story is actually growing up, rather than preserved in amber at that precious pre-sexual age, like all of Hayao Miyazaki's heroines. Jires establishes this at the start, with a drop of blood falling on a white flower, which is either beautiful or tacky, depending on your taste.
If this is a tale of adolescence, then the shifty, shifting characters certainly open up to various interpretations:
1) Research shows that when the hormones hit, teenagers become far less able to figure out the motivations of those around them, and the world becomes scary, alien and puzzling.
But to creep up on the thing from another angle:
2) When children start to look like young adults, those around them do start to adopt new disguises, conealing desire or making it cosmetically more acceptable.
In this light, Valerie might be a fairy tale that's found itself budding into puberty and doesn't know what to do about it. The film is slightly disturbing, and slightly disturbed with itself.
Throw away your ratty old Redemption DVDs, for Second Run's handsome new edition is devoid of scratches, jumps and poorly-transferred image, making the film look as rich and strange as it ought. It comes with an informative introduction by Michael Brooke and a little interview with Jaroslava Schallerova, still cute as a button.
The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.