Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Vertigo

We need to put this film into more comprehensible terms.  A girl reaches puberty and has her first period.  At the same time a band of travelling players enters her home town. They are joined by a group of missionaries.  Both will entertain the inhabitants for a week. There are to be many stories, much licentious behaviour, some sermons and plenty of ascetic bloodletting. The burning of witches is set to be the highlight of these seven tumultuous days. Put into such workaday prose the picture is clear: the Lord of Misrule has come to this medieval town.

Horror and liberty are the gifts he brings.  At last these people can relax! Their bodies can run free. Their minds will have even more licence. The strain of carrying difficult truths is removed, and long buried secrets are reclaimed from long forgotten strong boxes. Suddenly nothing is what it appears.  All is transformed. A child, now seeing life through the eyes of a sex crazy teenager, discovers a new world from behind the shutters and locked doors of the old. 

Valerie is turning into a woman. We see this transformation through dream-like sequences, where the turmoil of the festival, the stories of the artists, and the fanaticism of the religious sect are mixed up with Valerie’s coming of age to be transmogrified into a bizarre fairy tale.  This collage of strange imagery, that utilises old Central European folk tales - the vampire myth is very prominent -, evoking that moment in a young girl’s life when her mind is flooded by sex. For one week everything in Valerie’s consciousness is excessively eroticised, and the town appears to her as an alien place.  

The results can be extreme. There is the grandmother who (literally) feeds off her granddaughter to acquire eternal youth. We have a mother sexually attracted to a daughter who in turn wants to sleep with her father. It is Valerie… She goes to bed with Hedvika, a woman whose vitality is being drained away in a loveless marriage. This transformation of an innocent friendship between a girl and a married woman into a night of sexual aerobics a sign that everyone in this town is now subject to the dominion of sex (or at least this is the view from inside our heroine’s head).

Suddenly attuned to the dark sides of life - to the night and its immoral pleasures - Valerie has started to look behind the façades of her daily routines to see the desires they suppress and camouflage.  She stays up late to witness the drunken and erotic revelries; she peeks around corners to watch servants having sex; she looks through a crack in the wall to watch her grandmother chastising herself for her sins; and overhears the same woman pleading for her old lover to taker her back. At least we think this is what is happening.  We do not believe this woman is really selling Valerie’s soul to acquire a vampire’s immortality.

When sex first arrives into a girl’s life it is as destructive as an air raid. Windows shatter. Doors fly off. The front walls collapse to expose naked bodies slithering over unmade beds and bouncing away on hard wooden floors. The world is turned inside out and looks extremely weird. The freshness of this vision, coupled with the bright colours and the blind egotistical behaviour, produces enormous effects upon Valerie’s imagination, which creates its own gothic fantasy that is both vivid and confusing. Inevitably she exaggerates. Immorality is seen where none exists. We do not believe that her grandmother is an evil bitch; rather it is the shocking revelation that she is a sexual being that both distorts and destroys the old moral vision of a respectable maiden. The shock of sex, where copulation is fused with menace, generates odd perceptions and wild dreams, creating layer upon layer of unsettling images and licentious horror - these revelations are as frightening as they are intoxicating.  And then, as Valerie’s innocence fades away, Samuel Guilt pops his head around the half-opened door. Gesturing to come in, and refusing to take no for an answer, he smiles, cracks a few jokes, smiles again, and he says that he’s a close friend of Sid the Prick. Valerie is shocked.  But his smiles and jokes confuse her, and as she struggles to utter some… Samuel walks into the room and delicately places his hand on her cheek. With a smile so wide it eats up his entire face Samuel says: you know, I’m even closer to Jessie the Vagina. He doesn't wait for Valerie’s stuttering response…  

Then there are the strolling players. Their stories and their seductions (of the local women) penetrate into Valerie’s thoughts; adding further layers of fact and fantasy to a mind already overflowing with strange pictures.  

It is not just dreams and real events metamorphosed into dreams that we see. These images are also sensuous symbols, through which we experience the atmosphere inside this child’s mind as it drowns in sexuality. The grotesque caricatures and the homely monsters symbolise what Valerie feels inside herself.  Her body and mind undergoing a physical revolution that is both painful and ecstatic, and at times incomprehensible.  It is a horror show where Valerie is both actress and audience; although how much is dream and how much is life is something we cannot exactly calibrate.

Of course she imagines the priest raping her.  Of course she invents herself as a witch burning at the stake.  Of course… No! It is possible that she really does go to bed with Hedvika. Dispersed amongst the magical imagery are scenes of (almost) straight realism. Appearing throughout the film they are most prominent at its beginning and end, though always they are tinged with deeper meanings. One example will suffice: the changes to her grandmother’s dress - it goes from white to black - indicating a moral revolution in Valerie’s life.1  Sex is not merely a dream.2  It is also a reality in this “week of wonders”. But such extraordinary times cannot last. Once the players and the missionaries leave we expect the sexual fantasies to retreat into the recesses of Valerie’s mind; to come out only at night when she is alone in bed with her imagination and her loose fingers. But that is the future.  This week sex is everywhere.  It is the revolutionary who destroys all authority and smashes every chaste existence into surrealistic bits and pieces.  

Amongst the havoc a small number of important truths are revealed.  Her mother married a gamekeeper and they had two children, one of whom was Valerie.  This liaison was a disgrace to the family, and her mother was forced to leave town - not for a nunnery, the grandmother’s story, but to a life in exile with her husband and son. This is the week that Valerie is told the true facts about her history.  However, in her dreams other ideas take hold… As she imagines her parents’ return - to create an idyll of family happiness - Mr Sex pops around and persuades these innocents to take part in an orgy and black magic rite.  The week has reached its climax. It will not be long before Valerie wakes up. When she does the film ends. Sex will never be so powerful again.

You ask about the metaphors.  Surely menstruation equals vampires equals the Holy Sacrament.  What about the incest, you insist, nudging my elbow, and calling out in a wheedling voice. The Oedipal Complex?  Why don’t I write about this… Do I need to?  Do I really? Aren’t they obvious? The meaning of this film lies not in an allegorical analysis - the correspondences are too obvious for that - but in the wonderfully successful attempt to capture the atmosphere of a young girl’s mind when it first becomes aware of its own sexuality.  The itinerant storytellers and the wandering priests are the means by which her sexual imagination is evoked. They are symbols designed to produce feelings; they are not signs to be decoded.3

Valerie has discovered a new society.  It is one where the body dominates the mind to create an imaginative life ruled by sexual fantasies. It is a febrile period, where wild ideas can roam free. But such times cannot last.  When the artists and the missionaries leave town many of the images will follow them. Over the following years the rest of this miraculous troupe will gradually slip away until Valerie will be left only with her body. Then she will have really grown up. It will be time to marry a rich man.




1. The grandmother looks like she is wearing a mask.  This gives a very odd effect in what appear to be realistic scenes. One possible explanation for this anomaly is that even the most normal of daily activities have now become suspect. Valerie is seeing everything as merely a façade.

2.  We must avoid reading too much Freud into this film, although I suspect he is an influence - via Surrealism.

3.  Another reason for being wary of Freud.

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