Can’t you smell it?
“Everything’s going bad in this world, so we’re going bad as well,” says Maria (Jitka Cerhová) at the beginning of late Czech director Vera Chytilová’s 1966 film. The other Maria (Ivana Karbanová) heartily agrees and the pair, presumably sisters but who could just as easily be best friends or lovers, head off to cause a heap of trouble. What follows is a wildly surrealist, anarchistic kick up the backside of Czechoslovakia’s Soviet-controlled authorities and one that landed Chytilová in a certain amount of hot water. Daisies [Sedmikrásky] was initially banned for “depicting the wanton” but granted a brief reprieve during the Prague Spring of 1968.
On the face of it, the two Marias’ rebellion amounts to little. Getting drunk, toying with the affections of starchy old men, and destroying the food at an elaborate banquet is hardly the stuff of revolution. But in 1966 Czechoslovakia, Daisies must have been pretty incendiary. The two young women voraciously eat throughout the film and even take a bath in a tub full of milk. In a country where long queues for commonplace items, including food, was the norm, it must have seemed outrageous. Similarly, the male-dominated authorities would have known it was they Chytilová was targeting in her depictions of elderly gents trying to win the gorgeous girls’ affections only to be pranked and humiliated.
Despite being non-actors, Karbanová and Cerhová are both gifted physical comedians (the latter apparently talent spotted whilst performing in a “mass gymnastics spectacle”), excelling in the film’s frequent slapstick moments. Scenes in which the pair get spectacularly drunk at a fancy nightclub and bid bon voyage to a series of would-be paramours at the train station evoke all manner of silent era clowning and pratfalling.
Jaroslav Kučera’s cinematography offers lots of close ups of their wonderfully expressive faces, catching every capricious smile and whimsical wink. And while the Marias spend quite a bit of Daisies running around in their underwear, there isn’t a single prurient or exploitative moment here. It’s meant to be a provocation, a middle finger salute to the restrictions and conformities of life under authoritarianism, although its message could perhaps encompass any system in which a privileged establishment do as they please.
Watching Chytilová’s film 52 years after its initial release, you are struck by how familiar a lot of it looks. This may have been a fairly obscure Eastern European piece of pop art – part of the ’60s’ Czech New Wave and released the year before Milos Forman’s The Fireman’s Ball – but its influence clearly transcends its humble beginnings. The film – remastered by the Czech National Film Archive for this release – has echoes in everything from Jacques Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974) to Ridley Scott’s Thelma and Louise (1991).
I’d be amazed if punk-rock luminaries such as The Slits and Poly Styrene hadn’t been aware of it, while Daisies‘ anarchic humour can also be seen in Britain’s “alternative comedy” boom of the ’80s, including The Comic Strip Presents… and The Young Ones. The film’s endlessly inventive visual moments – including an amazing sequence in which the girls chase each other round their apartment with scissors, lopping off limbs – have been strip-mined for TV ads, music videos and fashion spreads over the years too.
It’s a joyous, mischievous and entirely enervating piece of work, topped off by an eccentric score, and Ester Krumbachová’s dizzying sense of colour and costume design. One can only hope Second Run give more of Chytilová’s work the prestige Blu-ray treatment in the very near future. There’s certainly a lot of it from which to choose.
Extras: Jasmina Blaževič’s 2004 documentary – Journey (Cesta) – about Chytilová is the main draw here. It features the director at home reflecting on her life and work, although frustratingly doesn’t go into too much detail on individual films. There are candid moments when she talks about an attempted suicide as a young woman, the disintegration of her marriage to cinematographer Kučera, and frustration that her post-1990 films weren’t as well received as her earlier work.
The disc boasts two separate commentaries. The first, by the Daughters Of Darkness podcast’s Samm Deighan and Kat Ellinger, talks about Daisies’ unique combination of “whimsy and nihilism” and why it is a feminist work, despite Chytilová’s protests to the contrary. The second features film historians Daniel Bird and Peter Hames and, as you’d expect, they bring a more academic approach to the material, concentrating a little more on Chytilová and her film’s place within both the Czech New Wave and Soviet-era cinema as a whole.
The only disappointment is how little Cerhová and Karbanová’s vital contribution to Daisies is acknowledged. The latter commentary never once even mentions them by name. A trailer and 20-page booklet about the film are also included.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
Continue the conversation over on The Digital Fix Forum