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PRINT April 2019

PERFECT CHAOS: VERA CHYTILOVÁ’S SEDMIKRÁSKY (DAISIES)

Still from Věra Chytilová’s Sedmikrásky (Daisies), 1966, 35 mm, color and black-and-white, sound, 76 minutes. Ivana Karbanová (Marie II) and Jitka Cerhová (Marie I).

PUBLISHED TOWARD THE END of 1964 in the avant-pop journal Evergreen Review, Susan Sontag’s essay-manifesto “Against Interpretation” ended with the ringing declaration that “in place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.” Her model for this aesthetic revolution was the movies. Two years later, in 1966, Czech director Věra Chytilová and screenwriter–production designer Ester Krumbachová debuted a sort of cinematic version of Sontag’s call to arms. Innocuously titled yet wildly confrontational, Sedmikrásky (Daisies) should be considered as among the quintessential performative artworks of its time.

Still from Věra Chytilová’s Sedmikrásky (Daisies), 1966, 35 mm, color and black-and-white, sound, 76 minutes. Ivana Karbanová (Marie II) and Jitka Cerhová (Marie I).

Although not immediately regarded as a masterpiece, Daisies is now understood as a classic text from the golden age of Eastern European allegory—albeit with a difference. A film like O slavnosti a hostech (A Report on the Party and Guests, 1966), which Krumbachová had written prior to Daisies for her then husband, Jan Němec, is an obvious parable, made—as is evident from the title—to satirize Czechoslovakia’s political order. It is also, according to film historian Peter Hames, the “most controversial film ever produced by the [Czechoslovak] New Wave.” By contrast, Daisies is the most confounding. A plotless farce in which a pair of young women named Marie (played by Jitka Cerhová and Ivana Karbanová) engage in all manner of antisocial behavior, the film does not lend itself to decoding. On a primary level, it simply is.

Still from Věra Chytilová’s Sedmikrásky (Daisies), 1966, 35 mm, color and black-and-white, sound, 76 minutes. Ivana Karbanová (Marie II) and Jitka Cerhová (Marie I).

The two Maries, at once friends and accomplices, are blithely irresponsible, declaring, “We know nothing,” and, “Nobody understands us.” Appealing but obnoxious, acting like liberated marionettes, their eyes wide with mischief and feigned stupidity, the two maintain that they are symptomatic of something else: “If the world is rotten, let us also be rotten.” The women are, additionally, as some Czech insiders have suggested, stand-ins for Chytilová and Krumbachová. According to the latter, Daisies was more or less improvised, involving “a lot of last-minute writing and thinking”—an experiment that escaped the lab, leaving chaos in its wake.

The protagonists amuse themselves by accepting dinner dates with smug, clueless older men, whom they humiliate with their terrible table manners and coy mockery. Often addressing the camera, Marie and Marie assault our ears with their singsong voices and grating, Woody Woodpecker–like laughter. That the two are played by nonprofessionals (Cerhová was a student, Karbanová a salesperson) who seem to be egging each other on gives the movie a behavioral subtext: The funniest scene, in which the Maries disrupt a floor show and harass the patrons of a Prague nightclub with their desultory, drunken antics, is worthy of the Marx Brothers. (It also seems to have provided a model for some of the theatrical hijinks in Jacques Rivette’s 1974 female buddy film, Céline et Julie vont en bateau [Céline and Julie Go Boating].)1

Are they acting, or acting out?

Still from Věra Chytilová’s Sedmikrásky (Daisies), 1966, 35 mm, color and black-and-white, sound, 76 minutes. Jitka Cerhová (Marie I).

In one sense, Daisies simply presents an extreme version of the things that people do in New Wave movies: get dressed and undressed, go out, go on dates, dance on tables, run wild, and clown around. In another sense, Daisies is a rigorously controlled paean to making a mess, perhaps the most successfully anarchic film since Jean Vigo’s 1933 Zéro de conduite (Zero for Conduct) desecrated a French boarding school. Every gesture, each line of dialogue, seems a non sequitur. The movie’s structure—five sections prefaced by scenes of the girls at a public swimming pool—scarcely registers. Plot is disrupted by jump cuts. The film stock shifts from color to black-and-white and back again. The action is interspersed with images of butterflies, flowers, and battlefields. The jokey montage is suggestive of Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s Un chien andalou (1929)—and scarcely less violent.
Still from Věra Chytilová’s Sedmikrásky (Daisies), 1966, 35 mm, color and black-and-white, sound, 76 minutes.

To crib the title of another Sontag essay, an explication of Happenings first published in 1962, Marie and Marie practice the “art of radical juxtaposition.” In one sequence, the pair set their apartment on fire and hold a barbecue on the bed; they play with their food, suggestively slicing up sausages, pickles, and bananas, as well as photographs. (The scene’s disturbing textural quality suggests an affinity with the filmmakers’ contemporary, Czech animator Jan Švankmajer, a Surrealist whose work regularly gives life to slabs of meat or stuffed animals.) Daisies itself turns to fragments in the spirit of these literal cut-ups.

Still from Věra Chytilová’s Sedmikrásky (Daisies), 1966, 35 mm, color and black-and-white, sound, 76 minutes.

Incorrigibly unladylike, the Maries are all impulse and appetite, with food substituting for sex. Their mischievous actions, presented in the context of war and social upheaval, are not simply anarchic but regressive. The movie’s central set piece travesties A Report on the Party and Guests: The pair invade an empty banquet hall, the tables heaped with delicacies presumably awaiting a host of dignitaries, and stage a mad tea party for two that escalates into an all-out food fight. Daisies’s punch line is the girls’ abrupt reformation. Newly responsible citizens, they set about cleaning up their mess, wearing costumes fashioned from official newspapers and robotically reciting a socialist bromide: “We’ll be happy because we’re hardworking.”

Still from Věra Chytilová’s Sedmikrásky (Daisies), 1966, 35 mm, color and black-and-white, sound, 76 minutes. Ivana Karbanová (Marie II) and Jitka Cerhová (Marie I).

In a 1966 interview, Krumbachová characterized the protagonists as “a pair of silly young girls but they could just as well have been two generals,” suggesting that Daisies might actually be a companion piece to Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964). (Recall the scene that Kubrick shot but did not use for the end of his film, in which hurled custard pies transform the War Room into a battleground.) Chytilová, who cagily described the movie as a “philosophical documentary in the form of a farce,” similarly maintained that Daisies was critical of its heroines, which is surely how the screenplay (or some version of it) was presented for approval to the Czech authorities. But whether or not they are what the party would have termed parasites or “bad elements,” there is just too much jouissance in the protagonists’ spiritedly anti-social behavior (as well as in the filmmaking) for Daisies to be understood as anything other than a celebration.

Still from Věra Chytilová’s Sedmikrásky (Daisies), 1966, 35 mm, color and black-and-white, sound, 76 minutes. Jitka Cerhová (Marie I).

Outside of Czechoslovakia, Daisies was initially perceived as a film about contemporary youth, a madcap comedy along the lines of The Knack . . . and How to Get It (1965) or Smashing Time (1967), both vehicles for Britain’s iconic jolie laide ’60s girl, Rita Tushingham. Bosley Crowther, the influential New York Times movie critic, who would lose his job thanks largely to his insistently square antipathy to Bonnie and Clyde (1967), which he negatively reviewed three times, managed to pan Daisies twice, first for its part in a program of new Czech cinema, and again when it opened commercially, seemingly channeling Czechoslovakia’s cultural commissars when he called it “a pretentiously kookie and laboriously overblown mod farce about two playgirls who are thoroughly emptyheaded.”

Daisies belongs to an international aesthetic vanguard, representing the mid-’60s confluence of underground movies, Happenings, street theater, and feminist body art.

Still from Věra Chytilová’s Sedmikrásky (Daisies), 1966, 35 mm, color and black-and-white, sound, 76 minutes. Ivana Karbanová (Marie II).

Chytilová’s film has recently been reissued in an excellent Blu-ray edition by Second Run, a company that has a particular interest in the Czech New Wave. However, Daisies, which, like Dr. Strangelove, ends with the end of the world, partakes of something larger. Unlike Miloš Forman’s Loves of a Blonde (1965) or Jirí Menzel’s Closely Watched Trains (1966), Daisies belongs to an international aesthetic vanguard representing the mid-’60s confluence of underground movies, Happenings, street theater, and feminist body art.2

Still from Věra Chytilová’s Sedmikrásky (Daisies), 1966, 35 mm, color and black-and-white, sound, 76 minutes. Ivana Karbanová (Marie II) and Jitka Cerhová (Marie I).

Chytilová may or may not have been familiar with contemporaries such as Carolee Schneemann, whose kinetic schmear-fest Meat Joy, 1964, made expressive use of chicken carcasses, raw fish, sausages, and near-nude bodies, but the director most likely had heard of the extreme, yucky body art practiced by Otto Muehl and the Viennese Actionists (later to appear in Dušan Makavejev’s 1974 post-socialist scandal Sweet Movie), and would certainly have known the work of Czech performance artist Milan Knížák, who staged his antisocial Happenings in the streets of Prague. Moreover, in “The Restaurant the World,” her contribution to the 1966 anthology film Pearls of the Deep, Chytilová cast the graphic artist and self-described “explosionist” Vladimír Boudník, whose ’50s street projects anticipated Happenings, and whose work with psychiatric patients coincided with the production of Daisies.

Still from Věra Chytilová’s Sedmikrásky (Daisies), 1966, 35 mm, color and black-and-white, sound, 76 minutes. Ivana Karbanová (Marie II).

The eternal present of the film has scarcely dated—or rather, it has precisely dated. Invited to program a series of movies representative of 1968, I paired it with Kusama’s Self-Obliteration (1967), underground filmmaker Jud Yalkut’s twenty-four-minute documentary about the Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama’s “Body Festivals,” 1967–69, made when she briefly rivaled Andy Warhol for total nowness and tabloid notoriety. (In 1968, she even served as the opening act for Country Joe and the Fish at the Fillmore East in New York.) Back then, taking the hippie multitudes as her canvas, Kusama organized a series of orgiastic displays of ecstatic free-form cavorting in which paint-caked, entranced, and often naked participants acted out in parks and other public spaces, as well as at the foot of the Statue of Liberty, not to mention in venues like New York’s Electric Circus, which had been the location of Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable in April 1966.

Still from Věra Chytilová’s Sedmikrásky (Daisies), 1966, 35 mm, color and black-and-white, sound, 76 minutes. Ivana Karbanová (Marie II).

Heavy on zooms and multiple superimpositions, Yalkut’s documentary is an acid flashback to a way of life once considered almost ordinary. It begins fairly sedately, with a deadpan Kusama al fresco, embellishing lily pads and a horse with her trademark polka dots, and then builds to a frenzy of tantric groping in the crowded East Village confines of Aldo Tambellini’s Black Gate Theatre.3 Although ostensibly meant to protest economic exploitation, violence, the invasion of Czechoslovakia, and the election of Richard Nixon, Kusama’s body festivals essentially celebrated themselves. Transgression was its own liberated zone. Like the two Maries, Kusama broke taboos in the service of an ambiguous drive toward self-actualization. This is not to say that her work was apolitical. On the contrary: Kusama may not have identified as feminist, but her Happenings were unambiguous expressions of female empowerment and antipatriarchal outrage.

Still from Věra Chytilová’s Sedmikrásky (Daisies), 1966, 35 mm, color and black-and-white, sound, 76 minutes. Ivana Karbanová (Marie II) and Jitka Cerhová (Marie I).

Similarly, Chytilová seems to have eschewed the term feminist despite a career-long interest in what Marxists called the “woman question”; her first short, Ceiling (1962), referred specifically to the limits imposed on female aspiration. She was proud that each of her films “met a certain resistance on the part of authority.” In the case of Daisies, this resistance was absurd as well as punitive. The movie, which the director dedicated to those who are embittered by “trampled down lettuce,” was first attacked by a deputy in the National Assembly for wasting food “at a time when our farmers with great difficulties are trying to overcome the problems of our agricultural production.” It was then withheld from distribution for besmirching the republic, socialism, and the “ideals of communism.”

Still from Věra Chytilová’s Sedmikrásky (Daisies), 1966, 35 mm, color and black-and-white, sound, 76 minutes.

Finally released on the eve of the Prague Spring, Daisies was banned a second time exactly fifty years ago, some months after the Soviet invasion, and Chytilová was prohibited from making films for another six years. Half a year before the tanks rolled into Prague, Kusama’s Self-Obliteration won an award at the Belgian Knokke-le-Zoute avant-garde film festival that, disrupted by Maoist students, gave its grand prix to Michael Snow’s epochal forty-five-minute zoom Wavelength (1967). As it happens, Chytilová was a member of the jury.4 One wonders if she experienced the shock of recognition.

Daisies is being screened at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York as part of its retrospective series “The Anarchic Cinema of Věra Chytilová,” April 10–18.

J. Hoberman is a frequent contributor to Artforum.

NOTES

1. Rivette interviewed Chytilová at length in the February 1968 issue of Cahiers du Cinéma. He included her first feature, Something Different, in his 1966 “Ten Best” list, and Daisies in his 1967 list.

2. Unlike her colleagues Forman, Němec, Ivan Passer, Ján Kadár, and Vojtěch Jasný, Chytilová did not go into exile.

3. The movie’s score is an endless wah-wah hypno-whine courtesy of an ensemble identified as Citizens for Interplanetary Activity. Some three decades after Kusama’s Self-Obliteration was made, a Village Voice critic caught a screening and called the soundtrack “the concert performance of the year: 23 minutes of psychedelic guitar, moaning vocals, piano alternately plucked and dervishing, with [electronic] keyboards all mixed up under an omnivorous and persistent lo-fi drone (so poorly recorded one can’t finger its cause).”

4. As the four jury members were all selected because of their prior attendance at the festival, it seems likely that Chytilová participated in Knokke-le-Zoute in 1963, perhaps with The Ceiling, and thus was present for the tumultuous screenings of Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures.