‘It’s nothing… Just a hanging man.’ Whatever else it may be, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is probably not best approached as a horror film. Valerie’s little world is replete with crypts and cobwebs, resurrections and beastly transformations, and features a notable Max Schreck copyist. It also evokes the lusty peasant world of bosoms barely contained by ruffled white cotton that serves as counterpoint to undeath in so many Hammer productions. It even has some of the colour and texture of The Wicker Man. But there is no Edward Woodward figure here, traumatised by the reign of misrule. Valerie, like Lewis Carroll’s Alice, is oddly matter of fact and accepting of the deep strangeness that envelops her. Thus, the dangling corpse of the priest who has tried to molest her is all in a week’s work for Valerie. It is as if, innocent as she appears, she already has an inkling Father Gracian will emerge hale and hearty from a coffin at some point anyway. Perhaps even that he will turn up again in the film’s flailing song and dance finale, incarcerated in a giant bird-cage in the middle of a forest.
According to the prevalent interpretation of the film, Valerie does indeed know, because what we see are the fantasies of a girl on the verge of womanhood. The Freudian/surrealist shtick is definitely there: we open and close on Valerie viewed from above asleep; very near the beginning we see drops of blood fall onto daisies under her feet, and so forth. So the hoydens on whom Valerie spies frolicking in the river, dropping fish into their décolleté, or sweetheart-cum-brother Orlík, or the bewildering array of parental avatars who alternate between bloodless ghouls, and buff young objects of desire, are all pretty much a function of Valerie’s particularly lurid family romance. But, while there is certainly a lot of voyeurism and projection going on, it would be a shame to simply explain the film in this, or in any other way. Why does a band of flagellants burst onto the square with a sudden fury, lash the water of the fountain, give chase to Orlík, then just as suddenly saunter off with their arms round each other, carousing merrily? Why does Father Gracián (Jan Klusák building on the range of camp creepiness already evidenced in The Party and the Guests) bear down on his doe-eyed prey, sashaying and ripping open his cassock to reveal a necklace of big pearly tropical seashells? One might as well ask why Christopher Lee looks the way he does as he leads the cortège/bacchanale that will end with Edward Woodward as chicken in a basket.
The film does, however, realise a world that is all its own by virtue of its intense vision of colour and texture. Father Gracián’s necklace, then, while not straightforwardly symbolic of anything, can be read against some of the film’s most insistent visual preoccupations. The shiny white shells against wiry black chest hair repeat, texturally, the glint of teeth between bearded yet rosy lips. Engorged (red) life palpitates next to (white) dead matter; and it is not always easy to say which is more beautiful, which more disquieting, or indeed which is which. Costume designer Helena Anýzová, who manages to pack at least three roles into one of only two outings as an actress (she also appears in The Cremator), pretty much runs the gamut. As Valerie’s Grandmother, she seems to have been run over by a giant paint-roller while her bone china-white house was being decorated. As ‘Elsa’, essentially a vampirically rehydrated Grandma, all rosy lips and lush red hair, she is a more alarmingly rapacious prospect. Yet, as Valerie’s long-lost mother, she radiates the same ruddy palette as Elsa. The family reunion scene has, at one and the same time, all the innocence of an old GDR television fairy tale adaptation, and all the disquiet of the phrase ‘a still unsplit pomegranate’ issuing from the sweeping black cape and white gloves of a vampire-priest haranguing a group of docile virgins from a beetling pulpit.
In one of the film’s most strikingly composed shots, Valerie sits down to eat with Grandmother and Father Gracian at a table in a meadow above a lake. Her ‘innocent’ white, the matt emulsion of her guardian, and the greasepaint against black of the priest, all stand out weirdly against a magnificent backdrop composed of equal bands of lime and slate, pre-storm iridescent, as meadow and lake are captured in a dramatically flattened depth of field. The film revolves around this sort of intensity of tableau. Director Jires shows scant regard for notions of continuity of location, or normal rules of shot-reverse-shot. It would be impossible to map Valerie. Yet the persistent idiosyncracy of vision – saturated colours, dramatic angles and deep shots framed by intervening branches and cobwebs – fashion a little world that is fully realised within its own terms and will haunt many a viewer.