Released just before the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia signaled the end of the country’s cinematic revolution, Jaromil Jires’s 1970 film Valerie and Her Week of Wonders has long been more known than seen. Residing in reputation somewhere between softcore and wackadoo, the film’s newly restored Blu-ray release delivers it into the long deserved realm of conversational availability.
Emerging out of the lake of fairy-tale iconography like a half-composed but still beautiful Rusalka, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is a Disney film if it were made by a dosed-up pornographer. A young girl in the Czech countryside discovers the arrival of her period. Her grandmother may then steal her youth to become a vampire. There is considerable biting of necks in between interludes of topless young women frolicking in pristine streams. Everything is photographed with the calculated sheen of vintage Playboy and filtered through a cyclical, proto-David Lynch structure that lends everything the resonance of rioting dreams. Though a spiritual descendant of the Czech New Wave, Valerie owes just as much in style to the maximalist approach of the early ’70s. This was an era of films like Hungarian Miklós Jancsó’s Red Psalm (1972) or Serbian Dusan Makavejev’s W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism (1971), in which mounting political repression was fought through not just increasing ambiguity of meaning, but complexity of imagery and cinematic technique. Though often regarded within the same oddball category as the manic Daisies (1966), Valerie’s oozing fairy-tale sex fantasies and metamorphic demons are perhaps even more subversive. The film escaped the same censors that had repressed so much of Czech cinema beforehand, and yet still sank into a relative obscurity that this release will hopefully mitigate.
Criterion has only been restoring films in 4K since last year, and one wonders if they held off on particularly challenging films like Valerie because of this. More than perhaps any other era, restorations of color films from the 1970s must balance improving image quality with retaining the unique grain and image textures of the era. Trying too hard to replicate “grit” results in disasters like the recolored transfer for the Blu-ray release of The French Connection. But go too far in the direction of clarity, trying to match ’70s photography to contemporary high-definition standards, and preservationists risk finding themselves in a granular uncanny valley, in which the restoration process sacrifices the film’s very character.
Led here by colorist and technical director Lee Kline, Criterion’s scanning and mastering teams have gone for an image palette seemingly built for the film’s water-drenched, dark fairy-tale aesthetic. Working without the benefit of either Jires or cinematographer Jan Curik still being alive, Kline’s team has nonetheless provided the kind of resurrection that we have almost come to take for granted from Criterion. Valerie has been a bit of a true-image Holy Grail, until now available only in a middling DVD by Facets or near-unintelligible VHS transfers. For those who only knew this film through those previous versions—which necessitated all but visually translating the images for one’s self through grain and low compression—Criterion’s restoration makes it look like practically a different film.
From the iconic bloody flower petals that the disc employs for its box art to the juice of wild berries, just about every image here can be read in some way as a metaphor for sexual awakening, and the image quality is finally rich enough to deliver this in full. From parades of street performers to busy village markets, previously invisible background details give the film the feel of a Bruegel painting, revealing the multi-plane complexity of Jires’s compositions. Small details pop as well, like the multi-colored lettering on love notes. Everything in the Czech countryside glistens until it drips, which contribute simultaneously to the film’s sensual artistic intentions and its illicit (and questionable) sexual aspects.
Your mileage may vary on how well Valerie’s technical makeover fits with the film’s reputation as semi-exploitative, and whether such fidelity only works to obscure the undeniable luridness. Criterion has enlisted multiple scholars for the disc, with Jana Prikryl providing the requisite liner notes and Peter Hame contributing a lengthy video interview. Prikryl’s unapologetic admission of the film’s “soft-core delights” fits in with her general stance of ignoring its seedier elements, while Hames asserts that while the film is undeniably lascivious, the 13-year-old girl we see onscreen is excluded from being overtly sexualized— though he doesn’t seem to have any explanation for why the 17-year-old young woman of the film’s source novel was rewritten as a barely pubescent girl. Both scholars, however, unpack enough historic, artistic, and metaphorical context to elevate the film beyond (largely deserved) discussions of male-gaze ethics.
Taken as a whole, the disc’s supplemental material provide a primer to the vibrancy of the Czech New Wave that preceded the film, while isolating it as perhaps the final example of the movement. Criterion has been gradually building their side collection of significant Czech films, including Jires’s previous feature The Joke, and his early student films are provided here to indicate just how far of a stylistic departure Valerie is from his beginnings as a social realist. Additional interviews by actors Jaroslava Schallerová and Jan Klusák are each somewhat disposable individually, but provide a unique view into how two different performers can experience a film production in widely disparate ways.
A side note should be made here of the disc’s most significant addition: a second audio track featuring the alternative soundtrack composed by Philadelphia “psych-folk” group The Valerie Project. Criterion has provided these kind of things before (notably the bonkers jazz soundtrack and William Burroughs-narrated remake of Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages), while musicians like The Kronos Quartet and even Giorgio Moroder have provided numerous examples of alternative takes to established silent films. But The Valerie Project is unique in applying a sound-only track to a non-silent film, particularly one like Valerie that doesn’t have an existing furrow already buried in the cultural consciousness. Essentially making Valerie into a silent film, the track removes the relative security offered by the lullaby motif of the original score and offers instead a more concentrated feeling of menace and electronic weirdness. For a film as relatively simple in metaphorical resonance (it is, after all, a fairly straightforward coming-of-age fairy tale, if also visually ambiguous and narratively circular), Valerie has attained a reputation as an oddity, a reputation Criterion has been happy to repeat in the disc’s synopsis. The Valerie Project takes that assumed oddness and amplifies it, and the experience is both a full-on reimagining of the film through sound and an invitation to experience it from multiple angles.
Equal parts luminous portrait of sexual awakening and porny skin film masquerading as art, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is an essential final statement of a long-underserved artistic movement, and is presented here with enough supplemental materials to allow full discourse with its best and worst elements. The beauty of its 4K transfer bodes well for the continuing application of the process to future releases, while the depth of insight into its artistic and cultural context continues what is hopefully an ongoing effort by Criterion to highlight Czech cinema.