Sunday, October 4, 2015
Valerie and her Week of Wonders
Despite its premonitions of violence and corpse-white vampires, despite various rapes attempted and otherwise and its intimations of sexual perversity, Jaromil Jires' Valerie and her Week of Wonders (1970) is almost completely weightless. A visual feast (and like all films with that feature, a bit tiresome), the movie excludes any narrative or thematic interpretation -- it is whimsical nonsense, a bit like a precursor to some of Tim Burton's least consequential fantasies. Jires was a great visual artist and the film is ravishing -- his editing is both razor-sharp and vehemently radical: only about a third of the film is cut for continuity and much of the movie is a dream-like montage of images, regulated by the fact that many of them are leit motifs, pictures that we have seen in other contexts in the film: a flaming torch, a hive of bees incongruously swarming in a beehive carved into primitive images of Adam and Eve (the bees emerge from the groin of one of the bas relief figures), drops of blood on flowers, a young girl swimming like a mermaid in a village fountain, chickens and feathers and exceptionally bad teeth -- the monsters all seem to be suffering from advanced periodontal disease -- masked figures, a fairy-tale carriage with red vaginal-fold curtains, evil monks. The film feels as rootless as its 13-year old heroine: Valerie is a beautiful young girl who has just experienced her first menstrual period -- we know this from a drizzle of watery blood on the flowers over which she has passed. Valerie doesn't know the identity of her parents, both said to be dead, and lives with grandmother, a mysteriously young woman with perfectly pallid features. Valerie's world is ahistorical -- it seems to occur in a past that combines peasant rowdiness,and ghoulish medieval piety, with Biedermeier costumes and interiors. She has no family and no friends. There is no social milieu, no hint of politics or any sort of class system. The injection of menstrual blood, signifying I suppose sexual awareness, into this porcelain and artificial world, suddenly invokes a host of monsters, most of them vampires of one kind or another. Another young woman is married to a rich, older man -- he also may be some kind of vampire. The virgins in Jires' film always resist being ravished and, then, as in most soft-core pornography (a genre to which the film bears some resemblance) come to embrace and desire their ravishers. Jires' movie has an unpleasant voyeuristic and exploitive slant -- the movie features lots of female nudity and there are hordes of ice-white lesbians. In fact, Jires' suggests that the affliction of vampirism can be sometimes cured by a gentle lesbian tryst, this mode of sex distinguished from more aggressive and deadly embrace of the demon monk and monsters, all of whom may, somehow, be Valerie's father returned to life, but, also, the human incarnation of a polecat that spends his nights slaughtering the hens in the village's barns -- this is the only film that I know that features a were-polecat. At one point, the poor beast is shown wearing Valerie's earrings, fetishized objects that have been stolen from her by hobbit-like boyfriend, Eaglet, a guy who keeps getting himself tortured, and who ends up exposed as just another version of the marauding polecat. Jires' vision of adult sexuality is writhing semi-nude people with bad teeth wearing black and either sprawled on barren trees or dry-humping furry bearskin rugs. All of this perversity and violence is light as a feather because none of it looks even remotely real -- when Eaglet is tortured by being chained half underwater or next to the village fountain where Valerie is wont to swim around half-nude, we see that his fetters aren't even locked; he can escape at any time so long as Valerie removes his wrists from the chains. The film's concept is that adult sex is some kind of predation involving an exchange of blood, ripped white feathers and disemboweled hens. This would be disheartening except that Jires doesn't conceive any of this as dangerous and doesn't take his own imagery of rape and blood-sucking too seriously -- at one point, Valerie is accused of being a witch and melodramatically burned at the stake but we know that despite the realistic look of the orange flames, they can not singe a hair on the head of our heroine and that the fire is only another species of flower sent to delight her. At the end of the film, everyone seems involved in orgiastic revelry, monsters and vampires all embracing, legions of wet laundresses sticking slippery-looking fish down the bodices, half-naked men who sometimes are flagellants, all prancing in a kind of Maypole-ring dance around Valerie's bed. She has abandoned her pristine white bedroom with its white cot and white-washed wooden floors and her old and shabby doll and, now, it seems, must sleep in a public place, in this park filled with grimacing satyrs and nymphs. The film is visually spectacular, but, I think, a little rotten -- it's message of pan-sexual freedom without any sort of constraint is particularly characteristic of the Prague Spring, a toy-revolution that had collapsed in blood and fire, crushed by Soviet tanks, the year before Valerie was released and the movie suggests that the only politics and narrative worth having are those associated with an orgy. But orgies also have consequences, as shown by the repression of Prague Spring, and I think that the film's very weightlessness, it's suggestion that all is allowed without limitation is not only slightly dishonest but puerile, a spectacularly seductive lie.