Celia / Valerie And Her Week Of Wonders – An Introduction

Here is the transcript of Cult Film Historian Darrell Buxton’s introduction to the double bill of Celia and Valerie And Her Week Of Wonders that screened over the weekend kicking off QUAD’s Scalarama screenings in September.

Welcome to QUAD, and welcome to one of our double bills as part of our contribution to this year’s Scalarama, the nationwide celebration of cult cinema taking place during September.

My name’s Darrell Buxton, and I’m a Derby-born writer on cult movies, editor of two books about British horror films, and a freelance lecturer and occasional teacher here at QUAD. I’m here tonight to introduce our pairing of two tales depicting magical and disturbing worlds through the eyes of young girls from opposite sides of the globe.

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Our films tonight, CELIA (1988) and VALERIE AND HER WEEK OF WONDERS (1970) ought to form an ideal programme, both being quiet and studied examples of the saga of a child’s troubled journey through pre-adolescence. The movies are very different  – VALERIE is in the tradition of Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice’ and also pre-empts the pubescent dark fantasies of Rosaleen from Neil Jordan and Angela Carter’s THE COMPANY OF WOLVES, while Celia’s title figure is younger, a nine-year-old living in  bright, sunny 1950s Australia, learning about death and loss via the myxomatosis epidemic killing off the country’s rabbit population, and encountering monsters in her nightmares. If VALERIE meets comparison with THE COMPANY OF WOLVES, then CELIA might be seen as an antecedent of last year’s THE BABADOOK, with its own dark creature looming from within the pages of a storybook but possibly representing the all-too-real terrors of extreme ADHD.

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Despite their fanciful subject matter, both VALERIE and CELIA stem from political backgrounds. VALERIE was filmed in 1969 in Czechoslovakia by Jaromil Jires, a leading light in the Czech new wave of filmmaking whose work was often critical of government and authority. Just before embarking on VALERIE Jires had made a movie called THE JOKE, about a man who is expelled from the Communist party after his girlfriend reports him for a chance remark – Amos Vogel, renowned champion of the avant garde and co-founder of the New York Film Festival, described THE JOKE as “possibly the most shattering indictment of totalitarianism to come out of a Communist country”. In comparison, VALERIE may seem a comedown, a sideways step into the fantastic, but as we fans of fantasy know well, the realm of the unreal is often the perfect place for metaphor and an ideal means of sneaking through critical and controversial viewpoint. In the context of a rich, visually stunning fantasy which can hold its head alongside the likes of THE COMPANY OF WOLVES, Walerian Borowczyk’s THE BEAST, and Francesco Stefani’s THE SINGING RINGING TREE, Jires manages to apply subtle digs at the bedrock institutions of the family and the Catholic church. Critic Tanya Krzywinska has also claimed that Valerie herself may represent oppressed and dominated late-1960s Czechoslovakia, and that her journey through the dream-like landscapes here references the country’s attempts to handle and fight back against Soviet intervention and occupation. As always with allegory, it’s there if you want it  – VALERIE can be experienced as an immersive phantasmagoria but hints at something deeper and closer to home. Bear in mind the pressures that Eastern European artists were under in the late sixties, and you’ll understand why Jires perhaps had to be more careful and less obvious than he had in his previous controversial output.

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CELIA, perhaps more surprisingly, has its political roots too. Again ostensibly the tale of a fragile little girl losing herself in dark and gloomy visions, CELIA places more emphasis on its real-world aspects than do most movies taking this template. Director Ann Turner has said Celia-Child Of Terrorthat she considers the plot strand concerning the rounding-up of pet rabbits to be her comment on the chaos and insanity of government, making snap decisions, reversing those decisions when it is too late, and causing ever greater confusion in the process. Throw in some communist next-door-neighbours to make the politics more overt, add in a family death, and the stage is set for our troubled little heroine to fall into the clutches of the imagination. CELIA is at face value a much more standard, true-life drama than VALERIE, but the threat which menaces the girl probably deserved a spin-off sequel all of its own, and the movie’s release in some parts of the world under the title CELIA – CHILD OF TERROR is actually a rather less cheapjack shot than it may seem.

It’s often the case that children appearing in this type of cult fare are never heard from again, but you’ll be pleased to know that both Valerie (Jaroslava Schallerova) and Celia (Rebecca Smart) had reasonably lengthy careers. Schallerova continued acting throughout the seventies and eighties, including parts in further fantasies such as versions of E.T.A. Hoffman’s THE DEVIL’S ELIXIRS and Hans Christian Andersen’s THE LITTLE MERMAID; more prosaically, Smart became best-known to Australian audiences later in life, appearing for a while in the school drama ‘Heartbreak High’ and later becoming a cast regular as Constable Donna Janevski on popular Down Under early-evening cop show ‘Water Rats’.

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Ok, that’s enough background from me. Time to leave you to enter the strange worlds conjured up by our twin excursions into hallucinatory childhood flight of fancy. I wish you three hours or so of enchantment and delight, but beware taking that darker, more twisted pathway…

Next up on The Fringes, as part of the Scalarama season of events, is Joe Dante’s The ‘Burbs screening on Saturday 12th September with an introduction by Filmmaker, and host of Crossing The Streams, Dominic Burns.

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