Jaromil Jires was born in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia in 1935 and was identified with the Czech New Wave. He often worked with non-professional actors. In 1970 he directed Valerie and her Week of Wonders (Valerie a týden divu) based on a novel by Vitezslav Nezval. It proved to be an influential film, dripping with sexual ciphers and earthy symbolism. The story tells of 13 year old Valerie’s quest to discover the truth of her family tree at a time when she herself is going through an awakening of her own.
It all takes place in some fevered evocation of a Transylvanian town with cobbled streets and fountains, where the logic of dreams is used to depict a girl transitioning into a young woman. Evils beset her and characters are seldom what they seem, veiled behind masks and revealed as their true selves only at times of emotional upheaval. A strange and sumptuous treat for the eyes that rewards sitting back and submitting to, like laying on a stream bed letting the water rush above you.
Threads of transformation and subterfuge trickle through the sunlit trees and shuttered houses like blood. There is the air of immortality and a whiff of the undead. Nosferatu and the vampire mythos permeate the pavements. Characters begin in one place and then appear in another seemingly impossible location at will, perhaps at the top of a glistening fountain or on a tiny ledge halfway up a sheer wall.
If you watch this in the hope of narrative I think you’ll be as sorely disappointed as the weasel that gets shot and hung up on a wall during the film. If however you are prepared to give in to the kaleidoscope of tumbling images that enter like acrobats, beautifully arcane and infused with European folklore, then you’ll be mesmerised and bemused in equal measure.
European cinema is full of strange and obscure ways of looking at the world, from the slow, lingering panning shots of Bela Tarr and Andrei Tarkovsky to the ludicrous carnival of colours and sex that is Fellini, but nothing is quite like Valerie.