Valerie and Her Week of Wonders: Criterion Collection (Blu-ray Review)

ValeriethumbValerie and Her Week of Wonders, out now on Criterion Collection Blu-ray, really does its best to defy categorization and synopsis. Is it a coming-of-age fantasy? A horror movie? A surreal experimental film? An art project? Is it a film that followed the traditions of Czech filmmaking during the late ’60s and early ’70s? What is for certain is that what director Jaromil Jireŝ does with all of these elements to make Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is brilliant, beautiful, thoughtful, dreamy, disturbing, and, well, full of wonders.

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Valerie and Her Week of Wonders focuses on Valerie, a thirteen year old Czech girl, who lives with her grandmother in a small town around some time that seems medieval. At the onset of the film, Valerie’s earrings, her only remaining memento of her mother, are stolen by a young man named Eaglet. The following day, Eaglet returns Valerie’s earrings, Valerie gets her first period, and over the course of the next few days the viewer of the film is treated to what can really only be described as a dream-like portrayal of the view of adult-life through the confused eyes of a newly blossoming woman… as directed by a man. Throughout the film, Valerie keeps a smile and a wispy effervescence as she beholds public sexual acts, is attacked by a perverted friar, meets, escapes from, and later rescues a vampire (who may or may not actually be her father), is held captive by her grandmother, finds out her love interest may also be her brother, gets accused of being a witch, and nurses one of her female friends back to health from a vampire bite by making out with her and sleeping by her side.

All of these things occur in Valerie and Her Week of Wonders within a surreal framework. It is hard to tell if what we are watching is happening or if it is being imagined by Valerie. The film does no handholding, it points no signs to the truth. Perhaps it is not really concerned with the truth. The film is like a fairy tale with a little less coherence and no moral drilled in at the end. It is just the adventure part of the fairy tale. Just the “what would happen if a girl was discovering what it was like to become a woman… but also she has magic earrings and falls in love with (maybe) her brother?” part of the tale. Comparisons to both Alice in Wonderland and Red Riding Hood seem apt when trying to delve into this film’s storytelling. The fairy tale nature makes the film hard to describe. It is light and airy and has gorgeous colors, but it is also dark and gritty and has sets with an overwhelming amount of cobwebs. It has a vampire, but it isn’t a vampire movie. It frequently depicts sex, but it isn’t about sex.

There isn’t too much of a narrative taking place in Valerie and Her Week of Wonders. But, the story being told, that of a young person discovering and fantasizing about the adult world around her, is excellent. The film overall is excellent. It is crafted beautifully, with small but detailed sets, rich outdoor locations, immaculate costumes, and a powerful moving musical score. Despite being surrounded by dangers and oddities, Valerie is portrayed exquisitely by actual thirteen year old actress Jaroslava Schallerová, who winds her way through this adult world maintaining an innocence and a positive spirit. This film really begs to be seen, but its surreal, unorthodox method of telling its story will definitely not be for everyone.

Despite being transferred from an original print from 1970, Janus Films and The Criterion Collection have done an incredible job cleaning the film up to an HD, Blu-ray-level quality. The colors are presented accurately, there are no scratches or warping, and the Monoaural soundtrack is free of pops or hissing. At only 76 minutes in length, the film feels both perfectly at the right length and also like it could go on for much longer; similar to how most good dreams feel. Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is shot well, with dramatic overheads, creepy close-ups, and claustrophobic shots from underneath the subject. It is scored very well and presented well. This Blu-ray is a great one to have around to show something beautiful, interesting, and weird to one’s friends.

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Encoding: MPEG-4 AVC

Resolution: 1080p

Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1

Clarity/Detail: While there does hang a softness, typically found in older films, the details are all very clear and distinct. This is a remarkable transfer, which was, according to the liner notes, painstakingly hand cleaned and restored. Beautifully done.

Depth: The film has these wonderful swings from gorgeous full shots of the town center or gardens to jarring close-ups of vampiric faces. Each of them is presented with full attention to a deep picture. A scene that speaks to this attention well is one of a lunch party with Valerie, her grandmother, the neighbors, and the friar. They sit at a table with a lake or river in the background. The lake is clear and high in the frame and looks as if it is being shown from above and composited into the frame behind the foreground action. But, no, it is just the excellent cinematography and the beautiful depth of the film making it look that good.

Black Levels: Creepy basements full of cobwebs, dark churches, black costumes, and some nighttime scenes give this Blu-ray’s ability to handle the black levels a good workout. Details in the dark are still clear and beautiful.

Color Reproduction: There is a bit of a soft focus going on at times, which can make the colors look less saturated than real life, but this is absolutely intentional. The use of color in the film, particularly having Valerie always in or surrounded by white is not only a great film technique, but it is handled expertly on this transfer. Colors are alive.

Flesh Tones: Hah. The few people who are actually flesh colored look true to life. This film has a lot of people wearing thick white or black makeup on their skin to emphasize age, purity, or evilness, so look to Valerie herself to provide the most accurate flesh tones, which come through very well.

Noise/Artifacts: No noise/artifacting at all. Criterion did immaculate work.

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(While these categories bias toward newer releases, it should be noted that for the type and age of this film, the audio production has been given much attention and lulls in the viewer perfectly during the film.)

Audio Format(s): Czech Monaural; Music Dolby 2.0

Subtitles: English

Dynamics: Mono sound. Not dynamic. Still beautiful. The soundtrack is well balanced with the voices and everything is very clean, particularly for a 45 year old film.

Low Frequency Extension: Don’t expect the subwoofer to be doing any work here.

Surround Sound Presentation: N/A

Dialogue Reproduction: The dialog is pop/hiss-free. It is all in mono, so no matter where people are in the frame, the audio comes from the center. This is how it was filmed. It works great.



Three Early Shorts by director Jaromil Jireŝ: These short films didn’t get the same HD clean up treatment as the main feature on this Blu-ray, but despite some scratches and sound pops, the ideas are presented clearly and show a style that would later be developed and showcased in Valerie and Her Week of Wonders.

Uncle (1959; 5:52) –A Funny and simple short film about a burglar getting distracted by a child in the home he is attempting to rob. This is done with sharp edits and solid lighting. It is also highly amusing. My favorite of the three.

Footprints (1960; 12:06) –An escaped prisoner is helped by a family in the harsh Czech winter. The family may want to keep him a secret, but his footprints in the snow may give him away. This short has a nice little story with great performances and some beautiful cinematography.

The Hall of Lost Steps (1960; 12:40) –Footage of people at a train station or on the train is accompanied by archival footage of concentration camps and atomic bomb blasts. This is less story-driven and more conceptual. While the content screams “film student,” it is presented well and makes the viewer move from cringing to smiling occasionally.

New Interview with Czechoslovakian film scholar Peter Hames –Informative interview about the film, its meaning, its use of fairytale, and its place in the Czech new wave film movement. This does a good job of putting the film in a historical context as well as diving deep into the use of setting, time period, and theme in the film.

Interviews from 2006 with actors Jaroslava Schallerová and Jan Klusák –The first interview is with the woman who played Valerie. She talks about her struggle with the shooting schedule of the film and that she was selected out of 1500 different girls who tried out for the role. She reflects on how it was a magical time for her, this being her first ever role. The second interview is with the actor who played the friar and he is less generous about the experience. He is quite candid about how the production team lied to him about how he would be portrayed, what he would be expected to do, and how long it would take to film. He still thinks the film is great, despite his unpleasant experiences.

Alternate 2007 psych-folk soundtrack to the film by The Valerie Project, with a new video on the music’s origins –The original soundtrack to the film is excellent. While this alternate one is definitely passionate, it can’t compare. The video goes into this band’s excitement over the film and how they decided to re-score this underrated film and show it in different venues playing their own score live. This is interesting, but too removed from the production or analysis of the film itself.

Essay by film critic Jana Prikyl –An essay included on paper within the Blu-ray case titled “Grandmother, What Big Fangs You Have!” about this film’s use of fairytale-like storytelling and its appeal. This is fun and informative and features probably the best description one could make of the film’s genre: “a surreal polychrome coming-of-age vampire costume drama.” That is awesome. Great essay all around.

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The Criterion Collection rarely missteps when it comes to the attention they give to releasing a Blu-ray. Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is no exception. The production is lovingly treated, the soundtrack is engrossing, and the extras are full of interesting analysis and interviews. The film itself is a bizarre treat. It is not the most accessible thing, but it is intensely beautiful and woefully dream-like. Another win for Criterion is another win for film-lovers.



1 Response to “Valerie and Her Week of Wonders: Criterion Collection (Blu-ray Review)”

  1. Brian White

    Nice Criterion review, Bron!