I see from the newsletter from the good people at Second Run that over in Britain they're having a theatrical screening of Valerie a tyden divu (Valerie and Her Week of Wonders), which the company has just recently released in a sparkling DVD edition, for Halloween. This strikes me as entirely apt. In its secular, commercialized form, Halloween is an entirely playful holiday, and Valerie, one of the most rapturous and peculiar artifacts of late-'60s/early-70s Czech cinema, is also one of the most bouyantly playful of all fantastic films.
This might seem an odd thing to say about a picture in which a thirteen-year-old girl, experiencing her first menstruation, confronts incest, lesbian love, a lecherous clergyman, and varied forms of vampirism, and is burned at the stake at the behest of the clergyman whose advances she spurred. A clergyman (played by Martin Wielgus) who, in his most freakish mode, bears more than a slight resemblance to another cinematic demon, Brazil's Ze de Caixao (Coffin Joe), created and portrayed by Jose Mojica Marins. (Of such illuminating but most likely coincidental correspondances is made a secret history of the horror genre...)
Yes, Valerie is burned at the stake by those who would punish her for her burgeoning sexuality, and as she suffers—the moisture in the air condensing around her, putting a fine mist in her hair as the flames draw ever closer—she seems a wholly admirable martyr for Love. But she won't have it. She makes her escape...
...and lands at an orgy of sorts, wherein a human vampire is revealed as...a weasel. This seemingly period film invokes quite a few putatively folkloric elements, but ultimately floats on its own free-ranging cloudbed of illogic—that is to say, it's not tied to any tradition as such. That's part of what gives the film its lightness. That, and its blithe unreality. Helena Anyzkova plays four roles in the film, including those of Valerie's grandmother and Valerie's much younger, determinedly seductive "cousin;" Her old-lady makeup as the grandmother is quite transparently theatrical, to the extent that one might initially believe that the filmmakers weren't even trying. The viewer soon understands that the theatricality is the point, that down this particular rabbit hole the real and the ersatz interact freely. This is also the case with Lubos Fiiser's much-bruited score (an acknowledged influence on such eccentric European bands such as Broadcast), a slightly-psychedelicially-infused concoction of faux folk and classical instrumentation and arranging techniques that practically creates its own genre.
But finally, the film's joy springs from Valerie herself, incandescently embodied by Jaroslava Schallerova. Quietly, slyly indomitable, she's overflowing with love, open to every experience as long as it's presented with kindness ("I've never had a girlfriend before," she enthuses at one point) and fully capable, it seems, of dreaming her own life. She's never engulfed by the varied horrors she encounters, and her sheer sunny will never devolves into treacle.
The new Second Run DVD effectively supplants all other disc versions, and not just because of its voluminous extras. Contrast the frame grabe below, from a prior Redemption Region 2 version of the film, with the same image, taken from the Second Run DVD, at the top of the page, and you'll see what we mean.