The seventies were of course a time of great cinematic innovation the world over, occasioned by numerous upheavals in the movie landscape during the previous decade, most notably the collapse of the Hollywood studio system and the rise of the French new wave. Quite a few unprecedented, chance-taking films resulted, including those under discussion here.
What precisely does it mean that four unrelated European productions appeared during the years 1970-76, all bearing wildly similar themes? Truthfully, it probably means nothing. But each film is worth examining, if only because theyíre among the strangest products of a decade that produced more than its share of strange films.
Jaromil Jiresí VALERIE AND HER WEEK OF WONDERS, Roman Polanskiís WHAT, Louis Malleís BLACK MOON and Claude Chabrolís ALICE OR THE LAST ESCAPADE all have much in common, even though each appears to have been intended as a standalone oddity. All, as mentioned above, owe a debt to the iconic ALICE IN WONDERLAND, as all feature nubile young ladies trapped in surreal netherworlds. The four films also contain heavily erotic subtexts, and feature hot chick protagonists who look to be in their early twenties (VALERIE, with its fourteen-year-old lead, is the exception). Another linking factor is the fact that each filmmaker was making a radical detour from his standard mantra.
In the case of the Czech Jaromil Jires that mantra was political satire, particularly in 1969ís THE JOKE, perhaps his most famous work, which was banned for years by the Czech government. The following yearís VALERIE AND HER WEEK OF WONDERS (VALERIE A TYDEN DIVU), by contrast, is pure fantasy, though with many startlingly dark and horrific elements.
Visually the film is a stunner, as sheerly beautiful as just about any movie I can think of. Itís also one of the few authentically nightmarish films Iíve seen. That aspect is made explicit throughout, revealed by the young Valerie (played by the radiant Jaroslava Schallerova, the directorís sister) shown asleep in the beginning, climbing into a bed in the end, and remarking more than once that ďthis is all a dream.Ē
Valerie lives with her grandmother, a pasty old crow. Thereís also a local vampire who likes using Valís family cellar as a repository for his victims. Around this time Valís lesbian ďcousin,Ē a bloodsucker herself, moves into the household with her sights on Valerie; the cousin is in fact the grandmother, having been made younger by an affair with the town vamp. But itís Valís budding sexuality that provides the filmís real center, and while the erotic content is never salacious, it is quite evident throughout.
The Polish Roman Polanski followed with WHAT (QUE?) two years laterĖand itís a big step down, from VALERIE and most of Polanskiís other films! There are few things in this world deadlier than a Roman Polanski comedy; 1985ís PIRATES proved that point adequately, and this earlier effort reinforces it. Polanski, after all, is at his best with oppressive thrillers like REPULSION, ROSEMARYíS BABY and CHINATOWN. The type of whimsical absurdity characterized by WHAT simply doesnít suit himÖor us!
Itís a sexy, Fellini-esque farce involving a supremely naÔve young woman (Sydne Rome) who, fleeing an attempted gang rape, ends up ensconced in a seaside villa somewhere in Italy (where Polanski happened to be staying at the time) stocked by sex-obsessed weirdoes. Everyone, it seems, wants a piece of our personality-free heroine, including a slumming Marcello Mastrionni as a lecherous would-be pimp.
Thereís little of interest here, with the sex scenes, the movieís apparent reason for existence, so tame they might as well not be there at all. At least the eye-catching Rome shows plenty of skin, especially when she gets her trousers stolen halfway through, thus giving Polanski an excuse to have her run around bottomless for the rest of the movie. Outside the pretty scenery, thatís about the only recommendation I can offer.
The French Louis Malle made BLACK MOON in 1975, and itís easily the weirdest, darkest, looniest movie ever made by this respected filmmaker, best known for ATLANTIC CITY and MY DINNER WITH ANDRE. In BLACK MOON Malle created a quasi-fairy tale with counterculture overtones (a pivotal role is played by Andy Warhol vet Joe Dallesandro) set in some unidentified future world. There an alluring gal (British sexpot Cathryn Harrison) traverses a rural landscape where men and women are at literal war, naked children frolic, a unicorn grazes, animals talk and flowers scream when theyíre stepped on. Harrison ends up in a chateau inhabited by an old woman and her twentyish children. As in WHAT, everyone in this film wants to fuck the protagonist, but she manages to hold them offÖat least until the end, when Harrison does eventually give it up to that pesky unicorn.
Stunningly photographed by the great Sven Nykvist, this heavily experimental film has an appealingly hallucinatory air. Iíll not pretend to understand it, but then Iím unconvinced thereís little worth understanding. As we all know, experiments have an equal chance of success or failure, and BLACK MOON unfortunately falls into the latter category.
Last but definitely least is 1976ís ALICE OR THE LAST ESCAPADE (ALICE OU LA DERNIERE FUGUE) by Franceís Claude Chabrol. The prolific Chabrol is widely known as the ďFrench HitchcockĒ, being a longtime master of refined suspensors like LE BOUCHER, LA FEMME INFIDELE (remade as UNFAITHFUL), THE CRY OF THE OWL and many others. Dreamlike fantasy is not his forte, which is fully evident in this, one of Chabrolís most curious and obscure efforts. Here we have Sylvia Krystal--yes, that Sylvia Krystal--as a hot chick who dumps her boyfriend, crashes her car and ends up in a mysterious mansion packed with creepy folks she canít seem to escape. Once again, everyone in the place is an insatiable horndog, and, again, they all want a piece of our delectable heroine. The whole thing is extremely silly and dialogue heavy (which made it a royal pain in the ass to watch, seeing as how the only available print is unsubtitled), and ends in the most hackneyed, cop-out manner imaginable (hint: the term Dreamlike was not used accidentally!). At least Krystal has some nude scenes, which essentially define her ďacting.Ē
So there you have it: four European films from the 1970s, one a masterpiece of sorts and the others emphatically not, all wreaking wild twists on Lewis Carrollís classic. These films also look forward to later, superior Carroll-inspired fare like Jan Svankmajorís ALICE (1988) and Guillermo Del Toroís PANíS LABYRINTH (2006). But for you Euro-philes in search of prime seventies-era weirdness, VALERIE AND HER WEEK OF WONDERS, WHAT, BLACK MOON and ALICE OR THE LAST ESCAPADE should more than satisfy.