CZECH MASTERPIECES

Just released in a stunning Blu-ray edition by Criterion Collection (the premier distributor of art, foreign, and indie films for home viewing), Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970) is one of those films which (to quote Czechoslovakian film scholar Peter Hames) “you should be prepared to be surprised by.”

Directed by Jaromil Jires, Valerie is often cited as the final major feature of the Czech New Wave, which flourished between 1963-’70, giving birth to some of the decade’s most innovative films and advancing the careers of filmmakers, including Milos Forman, Ivan Passer, and Jiri Menzel. In ’65 and ’66, two Czech films won Oscars back-to-back for Best Foreign film – The Shop on Main Street and Closely Watched Trains, respectively. After the 1968 Russian invasion, though, films that challenged the status quo were discouraged (to say the least) before being all but eliminated by Communist-controlled Czech Film Institute in 1970.

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is a marvelous last gasp, a montage of cinematic possibilities in vibrant color with gorgeous music.

Defying normal narrative conventions and genre boundaries, it’s about a 13-year-old girl awakening to her own femininity and sexuality in a confusing, threatening, but enticing adult world. Nothing is straightforward for Valerie or the viewer, but visual and sensual experiences are wonderful for both.

As she walks along a path at the film’s start, drops of vibrant red on bordering flowers signify the young girl’s first period. The adult world around her is both repressive and aggressive, highlighted by figures in black (vampires and priests) who try to make the girl their victim. Much like Alice in her own Wonderland, Valerie confronts and ultimately vanquishes foes and fears, her journey reflecting a joyous embrace of life and beauty.

Jires chose to stay in Czechoslovakia, where his output as an artist was severely limited by government strictures. Several of his contemporaries chose greener pastures abroad, most notably Forman, who eventually won Oscars for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus. Watching Valerie again after so many years, I was inspired to revisit one of my own Forman favorites, similar to Jires’ film in theme if not in style, directed in 1965 when the Czech New Wave was in full flower.

Featuring a mostly nonprofessional cast, including Forman’s ex-sister-in-law (18-year-old Hana Brejchová) as the title blonde, Loves of a Blonde (also on Criterion) is realistic instead of whimsical, more overtly satirical about social and political restrictions than Valerie, but still quite funny and touching.

In a small town, a shoe factory owner convinces officials to station a military garrison nearby so the town’s many lonely girls might have something to distract them from their dull, dreary jobs and lives. The first third of the film is largely taken up with a dance where three older, probably married,  reservists unsuccessfully try to woo three of the young girls, including Andula, the blonde.

(One comic moment likely inspired a similar sequence at the beginning of Indiana Jones & the Temple of Doom. Spielberg and his contemporaries definitely admired the Czech New Wave.)

Andula, however, has eyes for the young piano player, which leads ultimately to romance and disillusion. The final third of the film details her abortive trip to the young man’s home, where his flabbergasted parents try to cope with the situation.

Simple but poignant, funny and sad at the same time, Loves of a Blonde is as delightful in its own way as Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, products of a brief but shining moment in film history.

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