Groovy & Wild Films from Around the World

Sunday, October 18, 2015

A Week of Wonders

A Week of Wonders.

Roaming the short aisles of a small local video retail store, I came across a new copy of The Criterion Collection's blu-ray release for Valerie and Her Week of Wonders. Noting that the price sticker reflected the same numbers as what the disc was currently on sale for at Amazon (I know, this is a bad motive for purchase, I should've just outright supported this local independent video store – a treasure nowadays), I asked the clerk (and casual acquaintance) if he'd seen the film. 

"No," he tells me, "but everybody says that I have to watch it!".
I totally understand – for years now, a good friend of mine has urged me to watch this movie. It's one of those things where there is sporadic opportunity to watch this film, and I could have always called my friend up and asked, "Hey, can I swing by and watch your European-import DVD of that movie?", but as opportunity sits there gathering dust, the accessibility of the movie is what remained in my mind, not so much (or in fact replacing) the urgency to watch it – even though for years Valerie and Her Week of Wonders was not readily available to most people in North America (specifically, Vancouver).
Finally with a more direct opportunity to watch the film – as I now personally owned the new Criterion blu-ray – I wasted no time (this time, years after being introduced to the existence of this film) in placing the disc in my blu-ray player and giving it a literal spin. My old friend, knowing that I was a huge fan, cinematically speaking, of lush visuals and somewhat hallucinogenic and non-linear storytelling, was right in trying to turn me onto this film, practically since I'd first met him. But would I have received the film with the same sense of joy and excitement years ago? I can't say; though my subconscious tells me, probably not. The timing in which one receives a film is nearly as important as the work itself. Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is a nearly indescribably film in its emotional sense, and in the experience of its visuals and dreamlike plotting; and I mean this in a very subtle sense. Somehow, and paradoxically, it's one of the few subtly earth-shifting films I've had the pleasure of watching. 

Incredibly, on the Criterion blu-ray, stored within the few special features available on the disc, there are direct comparisons of Valerie and Her Week of Wonders and Jess Franco's kitschy/dreamlike Vampyros Lesbos; they include imagery from Franco's film to illustrate the comparisons, as well. Of course the influence of this gorgeous film can be seen beyond Franco's work and into the likes of Tony Scott's The Hunger , Baba Yaga, and even some of the more hallucinogenic Italian giallo films. After experiencing Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, not only is it now sitting in my top-six list, it has shifted my perspective on the odd stories of weird, dreamlike European films.

As I write this essay I'm traveling on a bus on the way to work, unbeknownst to me, I'm about to see another film this evening that has also been obviously influenced by Valerie and Her Week of Wonders – Guy Maddin's The Forbidden Room. This film is a languid trip, full of pop culture and cinematic references played up for laughs in what is essentially an experiment in non-linear comedy and the multiple sub-genres of the fantastique. 
I had read a review of The Forbidden Rom – unusual for me; I aggressively avoid reading reviews and watching trailers for films that I'm interested in – I don't like anything given away (or anything to feed into expectation, really). The review (reviewer) I read happened to have missed the whole structure of this ebbing & flowing plot altogether. He writes that he agonizes over where (or whether) the film is taking him somewhere, or anywhere; in fact, this reviewer has missed the whole idea that the plot is meant to flow in and out like the tide of the ocean, and the deeper it goes, it eventually takes you back to the shore, to the anchor plot-point of the film – which is a submarine crew that is stuck aboard without air. From this story point, the movie takes us into the realms of vampires, films noir, jungle exploitation cinema, and strange stories of brain surgery and murder. It is, in a word, amazing, and not at all disjointed as the reviewer of the review had interpreted it. In fact, I could draw the plot right here: ^ /\ ^ (little wave, big wave, little wave). And the more you allow the three waves of the plot to take you into its depths and back again, at some point trusting the filmmakers, our storytellers, knowing that they will bring us back to the anchor point safely, it becomes not at all about trying to follow the plot, but simply allowing the plot and story to lift us on its waves and allow us to float serenely above the unknown ocean under our backs. It did take me until act three (the third wave) before I trusted Guy Maddin enough to let him take my conscious for the ride (or: how I learned to stop worrying about trying to remember the string of vignettes that led to the current imagery I was experiencing). 
And speaking of allowing one's self to experience a narrative – going back to Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, this film's broken narrative structure is that of a more common non-linear storytelling – experimental, but within a single moving direction, no matter how wild the tangent becomes – not out to the depths and back again like The Forbidden Room. But the visuals are strikingly incomparable between these two very specific films, influences and cinematic references notwithstanding. Valerie and Her Week of Wonders does definitely have more in common, visually, with Jess Franco's Vamyros Lesbos (as well as some of his other films) and the experimental vampire films of Jean Rollin. Much like The Forbidden Room, though, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders uses genre tropes to stylize the sequences that stray from the anchored narrative, whereas on the flipside, Franco's films (like Vampyros Lesbos) remain fully in their own strange, often kitschy world. 

I have found myself over the last two days recommending The Forbidden Room to anyone who will listen to my rants about it. Usually the phrase "This film is nutballs" naturally works its way in there.  

On a final note, I can't remove from my brain the idea that when Guy Maddin's The Forbidden Room makes its way to home video, my opportunity to present myself a mindbending triple feature will be at my very fingertips. And that would certifiably be going into the depths of a cerebral and visual ocean of some unknowable cinematic significance. 

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