Cine-East Film Club Presents #40: 1966, Daisies (Vera Chytilova)

by George_East on March 15, 2014

This film is dedicated to all of those whose sole source of indignation is a trampled-on trifle

They are dropping like flies.   The last five weeks have seen as many cinematic greats shuffle off this mortal coil.  Back at the beginning of February we had the tragic early death of Philip Seymour Hoffman and the great Austrian character actor, Maximillian Schell in one 24 hour period.    At the end of last month  it was Harold Ramis, comic actor and director who was so important for the Saturday Night Live generation of comedians who emerged in the 1970s.  Then this month has seen the death of two of the great directors of European Avant Garde art cinema:  Alain Resnais and Vera Chytilova.

This was never meant to be the Dead Film Folk Club and so I have only so far, presented a tribute to one of these greats: Philip Seymour Hoffman for his film stealing performance in The Talented Mr Ripley.   However, it is my intention to present tributes to all of them over time and fearing that the grim reaper is on over drive in the film industry at the moment, I don’t want to fall too far beyond.  So over the course of the next couple of months I will present a tribute film every other week to the remaining four.  (And no I haven’t forgotten about my pledge last week in my presentation of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven to feature a long overdue John Ford western over the next few weeks).

So this week’s Cine-East Film Club Presentation is dedicated to the Czech director Vera Chytilova, who I suspect is by some distance the least known even among ardent cinephiles of the five.    She was a leading figure in the Czech New Wave: that extraordinary outburst of creative activity in the mid to late 1960s which went hand in hand with the brief moment of optimism and freedom which would culminate in the crushing of the Prague Spring.

Even though this period saw more artistic freedom in the then Czechoslovakia than the high Stalinist period of the late 1940s and most of the 1950s, the Party remained in total control of Czechoslovakian political life.     This meant that the artistic freedom that some film makers began to explore in the period had to be developed allusively.   For the same reason that Iranian cinema is today one of the most exciting cinemas in the world,   the restrictions on direct attacks on social norms and political structures, meant that more creative means of expression had to be used to express such ideas.   To be fair it is not much different to the way that directors such as Douglas Sirk  (another director long over due a film here at Cine East) would smuggle, into their Hollywood films of the 1950s, stories of racial and class prejudice in films that on their surface were weepy melodramas.  Directors had to be ‘smugglers’ in the useful phrase coined by Martin Scorsese in his great survey of American Cinema:  A Personal Journey.

Daisies is an avant garde surrealist masterpiece.  It doesn’t really have any clear narrative.  It focuses on two young women, who on the credits are named Marie I and Marie II, but in the film adopt a variety of  names.  They might be friends or they might, as they claim in one scene, be sisters.  The film opens over a montage of bombs dropping and destruction.   One of the women says to the other,  ‘the world has gone bad, we should go bad too’.  The film follows them doing just that.

Their modus operandi in a repeated sequence in the film is for one of them to find some middle aged or older man who is gullible enough to think that she is  sexually interested in him.   For him then to take her to a posh restaurant, at which  point the other woman will turn up and they will drink and eat him out of the contents of his wallet.   One of them will then accompany him to the railway station and on to a train before leaping off just as the train is pulling out.

This though makes the film seem more narratively driven than it is.  The scenes in the restaurant are cut with scenes in the apartment the women share (though at one point it is suggested that the blonde one is not supposed to be there – having no registration at that address),  scenes in various bars (including what appears to be lesbian bar),  scenes at a swimming pool at which they sit beside in matching polka dot bikinis chatting and scenes in the country side.

The editing is disjointed and jump cuts are used to join apparently unrelated scenes.  The film is shot in everything from black and white to heavily filtered yellows and reds through to ordinary colour.  The film has something of the proto-pyschedelic feel to it of The BeatlesHelp but is much more of a visual riot.

Both women are constantly ‘being bad’.  They steal from a lavatory attendant who is making them a coffee.  In the hilarious climax of the film they happen upon a lavish banquet set up for a dozen guests and absolutely trash the place (hence the reference to standing upon trifles in the quote at the head of the piece).

So what is it all about?  Perhaps nothing at all.  The film is so compelling visually that it doesn’t really need to have an explanation or an artistic message.  Some leading Czech politicians at the time it came out criticised it as counter-revolutionary as it showed pointless waste of food (which it does big style) and amorality.

The film can be read as a feminist piece – the young women consistently show how trivial, shallow and easily manipulated men are.

However, equally it could be read as a critique at young women using their wiles to get favours from men rather than seeking to change the structures of society that permit men to dominate.  The Maries are shown throughout as almost doll like, in their dress, haircuts (one has bunches) and their puppet like movement (often to sychronised mechanical sounds as if they are not real).   In one of the best scenes in the film, the Maries go to the countryside and pick cobs of corn from a field (probably illegally, given their characters in the film), they are covered in dirt and vegetable matter walking down the road, when a group of factory workers cycling to work cycle round them.

To their irritation not one of the men pays them any attention – is that because these are solid working men focusing on their work unlike the decadent bourgeois men of the city that the regularly fleece (as communist orthodoxy would probably like us to believe) or perhaps because they are not at their pretty best when covered in vegetation.    If the latter is the correct reading, then it might be said that it is a warning that the powers they have to manipulate men in the way they do will only last as long as they are young, beautiful and well-turned out.   This is hardly a victory for women at all.

The film though  with its montage of bombs falling at the beginning and then again at the end as the dedication at the top of the page appears on the screen may simply be a clarion call for youth and fun.  If young people are a bit anarchic, rebellious and lacking in the conventional morality of their seniors, it really is nothing to get too wound up by.  Daisies may be saying nothing more than   if you get irked by the young pissing about as the Maries do throughout the film, then you really are not paying attention in a world of wars and famine.  The film was, of course, made as the Vietnam War was beginning to crank up to its height.    Maybe its about seeing the wood for the trees.

Of course there is no ‘one correct reading’.   Whether you buy any of these or none and just sit open jawed at the sheer exuberance of it all, Daisies is a film you are not likely to forget in a hurry.   Track it down and watch it.  It really won’t be like anything else you have ever seen.

RIP Vera Chytilova

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