Sex Scenes: ‘Valerie and Her Week of Wonders’ Delves Into The Politics of Becoming
Fantasy, fear, lust, adventure, and sexual awakening converge in this masterpiece of Czech new wave cinema.
Film still via YouTube.
In an early scene of Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970), the goth-bohemian fever-dream directed by Jaromil Jireš that is considered a classic of Czech new wave, we see protagonist Valerie—played by 13-year-old Jaroslava Schallerová—trampling barefoot through a gauzy outdoor scene in a white cotton nightgown styled precociously with blunt bangs and heavy cat-eye liner. The young Valerie skips over a patch of daisies and looks back to see drops of fresh blood on the petals. Valerie pauses curiously, picking the flower, as more droplets form on the petals below her. She gasps and understands, running home to writhe in her all-white all-lacey bedroom. The next day, after a surreal scene in which she spies on a group of women playfully kissing and bathing in a stream, she she tells her grandmother that she’s no longer a child.
It’s after this confession that a fantastical parade forms outside the window. “Look, Grandmother, the actors have arrived,” says Valerie, and her grandmother quickly corrects her: “No it’s a wedding procession.” Here, Valerie first spots the creepy Constable, a monster or vampire, as she also grasps the meaning of the procession: Hedvika, her beautiful young neighbor, is marrying a fat old man. “Poor Hedvika” says Valerie. “Why?” responds the grandmother. “She’ll be a rich landowner’s wife now.”
The film is based on a 1935 gothic novel by Vitezslav Nezval, which uses the style and tropes of fairytale to narrate an erotically charged coming-of-age story that has much more to do with the transgressive, anticlerical and anti-bourgeois narrations of Sade than with any traditional folk wisdom. The movie, like the book, mixes high and low art, taking elements from the era’s softcore porn along with impeccable formal shots and a baroque taste for interiors and costume design. As in both softcore porn and surrealist art, much of the narrative is disjointed, focused on expressing Valerie’s moods and her discoveries around sexuality and gender roles rather than presenting a linear exposition.
Ambivalence is the backdrop against which the story progresses, and at each dreamy plot point Valerie passively discovers who is a friend or foe. A vampire named Polecat, who haunts her and wants her blood in order to live forever, turns out to be her father and also the bishop. Eaglet, Valerie’s crush, who may or may not be her brother, is both helping the vampire and sabotaging him. Her grandmother is her only caretaker but also sells Valerie to the Vampire in exchange for eternal youth. (Just your typical film plot.)
Ambivalence is also the center of Freud’s theory of children’s development of sexuality, as the entrance of sexuality gives everything around us a new and strange development; we become aware of how others interest us in new ways, and how the interest that others have in us is perhaps not so innocent. Our platonic playmates now become the center of attention, while a father we once thought loving may now seem to have become a horrifying monster. A stranger we wouldn’t have noticed before may seem now enticing, charming, trustworthy.
It’s in the figure of the stranger that we often find the trope of the “sorcerer” or “the vampire”, present in fairytales when our childish lives are pushed beyond the limit of family figures. In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari write: “Sorcerers have always held the anomalous position, at the edge of the field or wood.” And Valerie, like a true gothic heroine, will follow the two sorcerers (Polecat and her young love interest Eaglet) into catacombs, castles and forests, through secret passages, while often disobeying the authority of the family and church.
Deleuze and Guattari point out that “there is an entire politics of becoming-animal, as well as a politics of sorcery, which is elaborated in assemblages that are neither those of the family, nor of religion nor of the state.” It is not a coincidence that the two magical men in Valerie’s life are named after animals, Polecat and Eaglet, since they express an alliance with supernatural forces more than human ones. In becoming-woman, Valerie is also becoming-animal; in the words of poet Elaine Kahn, she is discovering how her body is not entirely her but “like a pet, an animal that I love. My first friend and partner in this life.”
But in a beautiful twist, Valerie won’t have her first sexual relationship with either Eaglet or the Polecat, but with Hedvika, the young bride whose wedding she witnessed the day of her first period. The two share a room, and and Hedvika confides that her marriage has condemned her to unhappiness. Valerie is struck by the young wife’s vampire-drained beauty, and acts as the initiator, saying she never “had a close girlfriend”, while two of them gently kiss and roll around in bed all night in disjointed shots, restoring Hedvika’s health.
The becoming-woman of Valerie coincides with becoming-queer. It’s a tale of a sentimental education through otherworldly visions, through reveries that allow her to penetrate the unhappy marriage like a ghost through a wall, to move undetected through the structure of society that doesn’t recognize her, allowing the young Valerie to forge new alliances, communities, and a sense of what romance can be.