Věra Chytilová (1929–2014)

Věra Chytilová.

THE FIRST TIME I saw Czechoslovakian director and writer Věra Chytilová’s 1966 film, Sedmikrásky (Daisies), it blew my mind. Why had I never seen this farcical feminist work? It was at once dark, absurd, political, philosophical, rebellious, outrageous, critical, hysterical, and subversive—all while featuring some of the most brilliant uses of optical printing, film collage, jump cuts, colored filters, textures, costumes, props, and food that I had ever seen. (The cinematography and special effects were the work of the great Jaroslav Kučera.) Eyeliner plays a role in the film, as do a host of symbolic foods—phallic ones such as pickles, bananas, and sausages, as well as similarly loaded others such as eggs, milk, and apples, are constantly eaten throughout. The ending features an orgiastic food fight that rivals that of Animal House (1978). But these exuberant, materially intoxicating “girls gone mad” scenes are intercut with bombs dropping and critiques of Czech culture and government.

The reason I hadn’t seen the film, it turned out, was that it had an extraordinarily mixed reception. It was banned by the government for a year after its original release in 1966. Released a year later, it immediately gained international acclaim at festivals (winning the Grand Prix of the Belgian Film Critics Association). Yet the work still saw limited circulation in the US and was mostly available in the 1990s on VHS and DVD. It was not until 2009 that a new, restored DVD was released with an edit approved by Chytilová. Chytilová was one of the leading figures of the Czech New Wave in the 1960s, and Daisies remains the film for which she is best known, despite its limited circulation. Over the years, I’ve heard or read various things about the controversy surrounding the film and its release. I heard that Jean-Luc Godard panned the film because it engaged with things that he considered bourgeois. I also heard that the pre–Prague Spring government denounced the film because of the amount of food destroyed in its making. The DVD extras feature Chytilová discussing the controversy: The film was funded by the government and released two years before the Prague Spring, but was immediately banned and was not allowed to be shown in Czechoslovakia or distributed outside the country for a year. Chytilová herself was not officially blacklisted, as most other members of the Czech New Wave were, but she was not allowed to work in her own country for almost ten years.

The film features two young Czech women, both named Marie, who decide to “go bad” because the world has gone bad. The film opens with aerial shots of bombs dropping in World War II and train wheels turning—this footage is intercut with the two Maries sunbathing, moving like mechanical puppets. In the opening dialogue, they determine that “nobody understands them.” In response, the Maries proceed to engage in a series of nonsensical, slapstick, sometimes surreal montages of actions and interactions with various materials. They constantly dress and undress, eat pickles and other phallic foods, and engage in a host of scenes inside their Prague apartment. Between these long interior sequences, the Maries go out to expensive restaurants to find older men who will pay for their meals. Scene after scene, these old men treat them to lavish meals, as the Maries pig out on cake, wine, and other fancy foods, only to ditch the old men later at the train station. The two women are the only young people in a world of older-generation types—they delight in getting drunk and blowing psychedelic bubbles in their drinks, falling down slapstick style, their kitten heels clicking along, their polka-dot dresses flash from tiny dots to large dots, their 1960’s cat’s-eye liner gets thicker and thicker throughout the film, until at the end it’s a wide band across their faces. They sunbathe and quite literally fall into a Garden of Eden, where they dance like rabbits and eat green apples. All this exuberance is laced with a dark irony.

My favorite scenes take place inside the Maries’ apartment. Here again, we see an incredible use of optical printing, collage, and cinematography, mixed with the textures of foods and fabrics. The Maries write all over the walls, light streamers on fire, and take baths in milk (while dissolving paper cut-out images of men they have taken into the bath with them) while eating tons of pickles; they roll each other up in blankets and off the bed, threaten to commit suicide with gas from the stove, and many more antics that range from disturbing to delightful, from playful to macabre. In one scene, the girls eat sausages, bananas, and eggs, violently slicing then with scissors—then they cut out images of foods and meats from magazines and eat the paper images, before lighting the room on fire. In another macabre scene, the Maries use scissors to cut each other’s clothes like paper dolls then turn the scissors to their body parts, cutting off each other’s arms and heads, the beheaded bodies still madly wielding scissors (like editors cutting film)—and eventually this collaged and optically printed scene creates a dadaist, Cubist cut-up of the entire room.

After all of this, the Maries find themselves in the countryside of Czechoslovakia, where they wander through small towns and farmers’ fields. They soon realize that the groups of workers there can’t see them or hear them. A striking montage of hundreds of close-ups of locks on doors follows. Eventually, the Maries find themselves in a large, very gray civic building covered in Communist posters, where they cram into a dumbwaiter. As they pass by each floor, they see glimpses of culture: a symphony performing on one floor, workers carving meat on another. They get out to find an empty chandeliered banquet room filled with grandiose table settings and a buffet with platters of meats, cheese, and endless deserts. Here, the hungry Maries engage in the most glorious, debaucherous food fight, destroying the entire banquet, dancing on the table, their kitten heels digging into cakes and foods and swinging from the giant chandelier. They fall from the chandelier into a lake, and typewritten words appear on the screen: “There was only one way to finish up. Is there any way to mend what’s been destroyed?” The wet Maries call for help, and as lumber workers lower logs into the lake for them to climb up, they say, “We’ve gone bad!”

The film cuts to them back in a banquet room covered from head to toe with suits made from newspaper and twine. Somehow, the Maries are back in the banquet, putting back together the table settings—broken plates are reassembled; cakes are pushed back together. Their own loud, illegible whispers are the only sounds while they work, moving like puppets in fast motion to repair the damage they have done. The film ends with them still in their newspaper suits, bound by twine and lying on the table. A chandelier falls onto them, and the film cuts to an intertitle that reads, “Dedicated to Those Whose Sole Source of Indignation is a Messed-Up-Trifle,” over the same aerial footage and sound of bombs dropping onto buildings with which the film opens. A call to action for anger and madness not to be trivialized.

Some of the moves used in Daisies were picked up by parts of the Third Wave feminist movement, as exemplified by riot grrrls and grrrl power, which emerged at a time when women were actively redefining the roles and definitions of feminism to be more inclusive and open. This involved exploring sexuality as power and an attempt to embrace what “grrrlness” was in its many forms. Presenting girls as ravenous and hungry is a statement that Godard misunderstood. Yet, in the years since, we have often seen similar statements evidenced in cult, avant-garde, and popular film: In Chantal Ackerman’s I’m Cold, I’m Hungry (1984); in the cult film Ladies and Gentlemen: The Fabulous Stains (1982, directed by Lou Adler and written by Nancy Dowd under the pseudonym Tom Morton), where eyeliner is again a material in exaggerated use; the girl duo shows up again in Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974, Jacques Rivette) and in the escapades of Thelma & Louise (1991, directed by Ridley Scott and written by Callie Khouri). The apocalyptic feminist ending of Daisies (as the Maries are seemingly killed by the chandelier) is shared with Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames (1983), a futuristic feminist film that addresses race and class. The body is seen as a tool for pleasure and power through Jane Fonda’s character in Barbarella: Queen of the Galaxy (1968). The girls/women in films and videos such as Spring Breakers, Bridesmaids, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Ryan Trecartin’s work all contain aspects of Daisies’ conceptual or stylistic approach.

Then again, most of the films above do not share Daisies’ deployment of experimental film techniques such as optical printing, collage, and nonlinearity. Through these techniques, Chytilová’s film finds another wide set of resonances—the list is too long to even start, but think of filmmakers such as Man Ray, Maya Deren, or Pat O’Neill, or a film such as Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (1970) (which ends with an epic ten-minute scene of a building blowing up in slow motion, set to Pink Floyd music). That is where the film’s brilliance lies: It collapses approaches ranging from the comedic to the political to the experimental. On the DVD extras, Chytilová notes that “in the late 1960s, Czech films that experimented with form, or filmmaking techniques, were criticized by the authorities for their inaccessibility.”

Once I saw Daisies, it immediately rose to the top of the most important films to me as an artist and as a person. I’ve watched it dozens of times, shown it to everyone I know, taught the film to my students, and gotten my daughter and her friends into it. Its influence runs the gamut—just the other day I saw a new music video that was a remake of Daisies. It’s a cult film forty years after its release in Prague, screening with new prints regularly at art-house cinemas such as Los Angeles’s Cinefamily. While many in the mainstream might not know this film, it functions as cult films do—with an intense following. I am grateful to this great filmmaker for her lasting and influential work—Daisies—captivating, psychedelic, intoxicating, dark, and powerful all at the same time. Rest in peace, Věra Chytilová. Your work and influence lives on.

Jennifer West is an artist based in Los Angeles.