A movie for every day of the year – a good one
Lewis Carroll tells Alice Liddell a story, 1862
On this day in 1862, the British writer, mathematician, photographer and logician Charles Dodgson told a story to a small group of children on a rowing trip. The children were the Liddells, the offspring of Dean Henry Liddell of Christ Church, where Charles Dodgson was eventually to become a deacon. Prompted to write it down, according to all accounts, by the four-year-old Alice Liddell, Dodgson did so, and in November 1864 he gave her a hand-written copy of Alice’s Adventures Under Ground. Fantasy literature pioneer George MacDonald, a friend of Dodgson, persuaded him to try and get it published. Macmillan took his book, and published it, under Dodgson’s pen name, Lewis Carroll. It was an instant success. He followed it up with An Elementary Treatise on Determinants, a mathematical work, published under the name of Dodgson.
Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970, dir: Jaromil Jires)
If the past is another country, what about a film from another country, made under the hegemony of another political system, in an era very different from our own. I’m trying to say that Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is weird. Its theme for starters. In the same way that Lewis Carroll’s reputation has struggled against the modern obsession with his feelings for little girls, both as subjects for his books and his photographs, Jaromil Jires’s 1970 film deals with something we no longer address directly – menstruation, and the transition of a girl into womanhood. The problem for some modern viewers stemming from the fact that Jires presents the girl as a woman in embryo, sexual cunning hovering as 13-year-old Valerie make her gauzy, filmy, backlit way through a film that is an Alice in Wonderland tale of strange, symbolic encounters with things beyond her ken.
Valerie is dressed all in white. We meet her in her bedroom, decorated all in white, as a thief wakes her up. He’s stolen something valuable given to Valerie by her mother. By the next morning the valuables are back, but Valerie has had her first period and the town suddenly seems awash with pheromones, her budding femininity a lure for anything with a dick in its trousers. The town is also awash with missionaries and the carnival, each in their different way obsessed with sex. What is a girl to do? Yesterday she was playing with toys; today new play equipment seems to have been installed.
This hazy, dreamlike, quasi-surreal, relentlessly symbolic film could also not be made today because, rare exceptions apart, we don’t go in for surrealism or overt symbolism too much now (the white T shirt of the “final girl” in horror films being something of a throwback). Like the cult 1967 TV series The Prisoner, or the original The Wicker Man, in Valerie there’s a constant suspicion that another reality lies just out of reach, that things are about to break on through to the other side, as the Doors put it in song. The soundtrack reinforces that impression, the tinkly harpsichord so often being the signifier in films of this period of the metaphysical.
Strangely, considering all this blurry, referential, meta-whatsit business, the film is shot in the crispest, cleanest, most brightly coloured and most beautifully lit fashion. The Communist authorities at the time hardly went a bundle on this sort of abstract, symbolic, esoteric nonsense. They preferred black and white, socialist realism, proud young workers striving towards a better future and so on, not some child wandering among the vampires and demons, black magic and sexual mantraps that Jires is intent on putting in Valerie’s way. Doubtless the authorities were convinced that the Church in the film was no symbolic literary device, that Jires meant the film as an attack on the corrupting power of an institution inimical to the spirit of Communism. However, everyone living in any totalitarian regime becomes well versed in the double reading of every cultural artefact. They would have seen the Church here as representing the repressive state, the burning of heretics a reminder of the suppression of the liberally minded Prague Spring by Soviet tanks, which had taken place only two years earlier. In fact Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is a product of that sudden loosening of the Communist grip, when it looked like Europe might return to business as usual. And as well as telling a story of a girl and her odd and surreal week, that is part of the film’s project, connecting Czechoslovakia back up to a wider Europe, with the Grimm brothers in its past, Hammer horror and giallo in its present, and who knows what in its future.
- A cinematic one-off
- The gorgeous cinematography of Jan Curík
- The frail beauty of Jaroslava Schallerová as Valerie
- Alice in Wonderland coined anew
© Steve Morrissey 2014
I have seen Second Run’s beautifully restored version and can recommend it