Posted by Nathaniel Thompson on January 18, 2017
Following up on my look at one of my favorite films of the Czech New Wave, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970), it seems only appropriate to follow up with another astonishing film from that period told from the perspective of young women: Daisies (1966). However, this one’s a bit different as I’d also rank it as one of the most fascinating films ever from a female director, in this case the endlessly creative and unpredictable Věra Chytilová, who would likely have prime placement in the pantheon of great world directors if all of her films were easier to see.
There’s been a lot of discussion about diversity in cinema over the past few years, with a particular focus on female directors since Kathryn Bigelow’s breakthrough Oscar win for directing The Hurt Locker (2008). However, while American filmmaking has certainly made some progress in recent years (and we definitely have a healthy number of highly accomplished American female directors), Europe has been ahead of the curve for a much longer period thanks to helmers as disparate as Lina Wertmüller, Catherine Breillat, Liliana Cavani, Agnès Varda, Lucile Hadzihalilovic and Susanne Bier, to name but a few. There’s no way you could ever confuse any of their films for the work of anyone else, and that applies especially to Chytilová, who managed to make avant garde techniques fun, accessible, and even dangerous at a time when it was needed most.
That brings us to Daisies (1966), which you could describe as a female buddy picture concocted by kids on a sugar bender in art class. This was Chytilová’s fourth full-length feature following her days at the national Czech film school, FAMU, and such films as A Bag of Fleas (1962) and Something Different (1963), plus a truly wild segment of the Czech anthology Pearls of the Deep (1965). It’s here that she cut loose so freely that the film was temporarily banned in her home country even as it won awards and made her reputation abroad. It’s basically a huge prank on communist ideology, consumerism and even the viewers themselves. Two young women both named Marie (Ivana Karbanová and Jitka Cerhová) come to the conclusion that society has become so “spoiled” and complacent that the only possible response is indulgence and anarchy: “If everything’s going bad… we’re going bad as well! Does it matter?”
From there it’s a freewheeling odyssey through what may be their consciousness as headless figures run around, phallic symbols get castrated and food fights erupt. What does it all mean? Well, you can certainly read a lot of political intention in all of the apple cart overturning here (after all, the opening credits play out over intercut footage of whirling gears and catastrophic explosions), but you can also just sit back and go for the ride without thinking about it too much. Consider it as two women emancipating themselves not only from the expectations of the social order around them but the very nature of being “sympathetic” movie heroes altogether, and that’s where things get really fascinating. In American films it’s important that female heroes be as likable as possible, a la the excellent but less confrontational Thelma & Louise (1991); here there’s no interest in ladling on back story and motivation at all. It’s a film you can truly watch at different times of day or different ages and get a completely unique experience each time.
I also love how the film freely mixes vibrant color, black-and-white, and tinted footage, a technique that really seemed to be in the air that year along with Claude Lelouch’s A Man and a Woman (1966) leading the pack. The memorable “gluttony” dining scene early on is a really priceless example as the color tints rhythmically alternate when the two ladies turn an evening of elegant dining into a subversive mixture of flirtation and discreet terrorism. Some other delicious moments: that frenetic restaurant Charleston sequence (with the anti-heroines bouncing in unison) worthy of Ken Russell, a bedroom bonfire of crepe paper and dangling link sausages, the aforementioned fantasy scene with the actresses’ heads temporarily liberated from their bodies, a slapstick ride in a chandelier… and on and on.
Despite its censorship issues, Daisies had an impact that could be felt throughout European films of the 1970s in fascinating ways. Most surprisingly, you can find echoes of it in several French horror films of the period, with filmmaker Jean Rollin using paired women as instruments of chaos and social change in films like Requiem for a Vampire (1971) and The Demoniacs (1974). The most obvious and fascinating descendant of this film is the marvelous Joël Séria shocker Don’t Deliver Us from Evil (1971), in which two seemingly innocent convent schoolgirls decide to break every social taboo in the book and devote themselves to the dark arts instead of Catholic dogma, culminating in a piece of performance art worthy of Chytilová herself.
Fortunately Daisies was far from the last highlight in Chytilová’s career. Her next film was the startling, richly colored Fruit of Paradise (1969), after which political suppression caused her to take a hiatus until she resumed directing in 1976 and remained steadily busy until her retirement in 2006. It’s still a bit tricky finding most of Chytilová’s filmography in English-friendly editions, though other titles are out there in various U.K. and Czech releases with subtitles if you dig around a bit. Among her later work I’d give a hearty recommendation to the eerie snowbound horror film Wolf’s Hole (Vlci bouda) (1987), the philosophical nudist camp movie (yes, really!), Expulsion from Paradise (Vyhnání z ráje) (2001) and the darkly comic rape-revenge film Traps (1998), which would make a great companion feature with Paul Verhoeven’s Elle (2016).
There’s also a fine documentary about her called Journeys (Cesta) (2004), made near the end of her career, which offers a welcome dive into her views on art and life. My favorite sound bite that sums up her work perfectly: “I simply felt, from the beginning, that everything is possible,” she notes as she looks back at her work. “I was daring enough to want to do what I wanted. I wanted absolute freedom. Even if it was a mistake.”
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