Daisies (Sedmikrásky) Review

The wondrous 1966 Czech film Daisies (Sedmikrásky) is that rare beast seemingly cute and cuddly but actually prone to ravage the very marrow of one's body. Its spectacular colors, accentuated by ample use of bright filters, and pair of deceptively adorable heroines make Daisies an inviting, if enigmatic, experience. Viewing the film with just that surface appeal is probably forgivable. At just an hour and a quarter in length, it manages to actually feel rompish and bubbly if those beginning and ending bookends depicting apocalyptic destruction are ignored. The experimental fragmentation and collage-like nature of the movie never, to its credit, prove so confounding or impenetrable as to repel the audience. Those with any sense of refined attention span can surely sit back and enjoy Daisies for its feverish blend of madcap insanity and flirtatious attitude. Who doesn't like cute girls and pretty colors, right?

Director Věra Chytilová and her collaborators, including co-writer Ester Krumbachová and cinematographer Jaroslav Kučera, quite obviously had much greater ambitions than simply delivering an entertaining and largely plotless frolic. Exactly what those ambitions were might be just about anyone's guess, and it's impressive that Daisies does work well enough without bringing ideas of metaphor, allegory and a larger message into the conversation. It's also quite admirable that no one key has been discovered to unlock the film's greater meaning. Interpretations abound, making each individual viewing a nicely subjective experience. While one side of the coin might indicate an unfocused or inconsistent message in Daisies as being the reason for how difficult it can be to fully grasp, that's not a complaint I'm willing to make. If the kneejerk reaction is positive, the following one should ideally try to figure out what caused the initial affection. Simply not offering a road map and then delighting in the detour should hardly be so bothersome as to ruin the experience.

The philosophical underpinnings of a film where two young, attractive women delight in being destructive on various levels end up being both enormous and loosely defined. These ladies, identified in secondary materials as Marie I and Marie II despite those names not being used at all in the picture, begin the movie by recognizing how the world has really lost its way. They realize that maybe they're also "going bad," and, with no need for any backstory or exposition, we meet our protagonists - one brunette (Jitka Cerhová) and one blonde (Ivana Karbanová). Both have on dresses (when fully clothed) throughout the film - often black for the brunette and white for the blonde - and a deliciously subtle and otherwise meaningless moment occurs in the second half when the brunette is seen wearing a black dress with large white polka dots while the blonde is in a white dress with black polka dots. These two almost interchangeable entities slightly merge via clothing.

The idea of a world spoiled leading to the protagonists deciding or being inspired or ordained into completely giving in to the inherently hedonistic nature of human existence is one ripe for exploration. It's as though the two Maries look around and immediately figure there's little point in playing by outdated rules. Armed with the fleeting quality of outer beauty and a keen sense of the powers that affords, the two heroines proceed to tweely destroy everything they can. But the feminist message here is mixed. The lead characters seem to subvert models of femininity at every possible turn, starting with the blonde Marie's assertion that she'll look like a virgin simply by wearing a crown of flowers on her head. Conventional ideals are teasingly and increasingly disrupted as the women disparage their various male companions. Several restaurant visits fail to lead to anything more for the much older male suitors, and the two females seem to delight in tweaking expectations. After expressing a preference to eat only small animals, perhaps a dig at the petite expectation ascribed to women, the blonde slovenly devours a piece of cake prior to taking on her order of what appears to be a full chicken.

There's definitely a sense of tapdancing on preconceptions in Daisies. The Maries engage in stereotypically feminine behavior but do so with such a knowing wink as to make the expected seem unclean. Clearly, the velvet rebellion of these two is most immediately aimed at their male suitors, clueless one and all. The men of the picture, what few there are, have motives bordering on the salacious. The three restaurant dates involuntarily withdraw unsatisfied, but it's the pathetic companion (Jan Klusák) of the fair-haired Marie who comes across as especially sad. He has his prey in sight, the beautiful human butterfly pinned to a canvas. They're in his home, she's naked with strategically placed framed butterflies, but he's not fully cognizant of the situation. She teases, "I have no idea what you want," and the result is a less desirable form of a sleepless night. Cruel from the male perspective, empowering from the female view.

Considering the mischievous nature of how they act, it's interesting how difficult these two heroines are to fully dislike. Superficially, they play into the male fantasy with disturbing perfection. When the darker side is revealed, the appeal stubbornly remains but still with some reservations. One scene involves the Maries taking scissors to various phallic-shaped foods like pickles, bananas and sausages as the gentleman caller expresses his affection for the blonde. Everything's giggles and raccoon-eyed cooing in Daisies until the surface is punctured. And it's downright obliterated by the ending. The girls, partaking in an abandoned smorgasbord feast, initially with little hesitation or apology, decimate this lovely spread of food. But the playful soon ceases to be fun and any sense of lightness is suddenly shed. The ending and subsequent written message that follows leave an angry, bitter taste. It's not a patch on the merits of the film, but it may be on our protagonists' actions. What have they done and what does it mean. This denouement seethes with barely contained rage. Just who or what the target is may not be immediately obvious. The complaint seems fairly clear, though, and, for the first time in the film, we're left with a starkly defiant and serious tone. A message is loudly typed out on screen in Czech, translated as: "This film is dedicated to all those whose sole source of indignation is a trampled-on trifle." Do you get the point? I think maybe we do, at least one of them.

The Disc

The brave purveyors of challenging world cinema at Second Run have set their sights on a most worthy addition to the English language market in Daisies, which is spine number 039 for the label. The region-free PAL release includes a nearly hourlong documentary on the film's director Vera Chytilová and a nice booklet inside the case. If you've not yet ventured into the Second Run catalog, Daisies would make an excellent first experience. The dedication of Second Run is always impressive, but equally encouraging is the continued low price point. There's just nothing to complain about with any conviction in these editions. As an amateur complainer, that's refreshing.

Though Facets previously released an edition of the film in R1, this offering from Second Run would seem to up the ante considerably. Daisies, while still occasionally clinging to various bits of dirt and stray damage marks, looks phenomenal. The remarkably beautiful colors are vibrant and deep, seemingly to the point of enveloping the viewer entirely. Grain is present but not heavy. There are mild imperfections, but it's just a gorgeous-looking image overall. It's in approximately the 1.33:1 aspect ratio as it should be and the transfer is progressive. The dual-layered disc allows for a tremendously high bitrate. I can't imagine any reasonable disappointment.

The Czech mono audio is our only listening option. Creative noises, everything from a clock ticking to creaking upon movement, mesh well with the dialogue and various musical pieces. There is some hiss in the track, which is listed as having been restored, but the audio is generally satisfactory all things considered. Spot-on English subtitles are optional, white in color. The documentary piece on Vera Chytilová is also in Czech with optional English subtitles, but those are less perfect and show occasional typos.

Speaking of that, Journey (Cesta) is an almost hourlong documentary film portrait of Daisies director Vera Chytilová from 2004. It was directed by Jasmina Blaževič and details Chytilová beyond just her movies. There are a few clips from her films, but the main concern seems to be the life and philosophy of the director. The term "portrait" is really operative here. Old home movies show activities as intimate as Chytilová breastfeeding one of her children while contemporary footage, which comprises the majority of the documentary, focuses on her around the home. She has a fairly large brown dog we see a few times and do pay attention to one of its sleeping positions on the couch while Chytilová is talking. Not to take away from the documentary as a whole, which I found to be exceptionally interesting and a rare sort of look at an aged director, but, initially, I thought the dog must have been stuffed until slight leg movement could be seen.

A charming trailer (2:01) created especially for this DVD release is also on the disc.

The usual and always welcome Second Run booklet can be found inside the transparent keepcase. In it, a fairly comprehensive essay by Peter Hames, taken largely from his book The Czechoslovak New Wave, includes background and history on Chytilová as well as various interpretations on Daisies. It's an interesting read on a film that can defy analysis. An attractive Second Run catalogue, newly updated for 2009, adds some additional heft. Burgeoning admirers of Second Run may quickly take to this extra booklet as it gives useful details on each of the label's releases thus far and even promises a few previously unannounced titles.

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