Director: Vera Chytilová
Screenplay: Vera Chytilová, Ester Krumbachová, Pavel Jurácek
Starring: Ivana Karbanová, Jitka Cerhová
Running Time: 76 min
BBFC Certificate: 15
Vera Chytilová has been referred to as the ‘First Lady of Czech Cinema’. She was one of the key figures in the Czech New Wave movement and one of the few women among them. Supposedly in her interview for Prague’s renowned film school FAMU, she was asked why she wanted to enrol and her answer was that she didn’t like the films they were making. This strong-willed woman indeed went on to make the sort of films she wanted to make (her first feature was even titled Something Different). The most famous of these, which was banned by the Czech authorities for “depicting the wanton”, is Daisies (a.k.a. Sedmikrásky), made in 1966, two years before the Prague Spring put a stop to the New Wave. Second Run, the UK’s chief purveyor of Czechoslovakian films, are bringing this title out on Blu-Ray, following a series of screenings in selected cinemas. I’ve been relishing my slow discovery of Czechoslovakian cinema over the last couple of years so I snapped up the chance to review it.
Daisies doesn’t have much of a plot to summarise here. It opens with two young women, both named Marie (Jitka Cerhová and Ivana Karbanová) who believe the world has gone bad, so the only logical move they should make is to go bad themselves. Thus the pair indulge in a series of rebellious activities. These include a number of humiliations of potential suitors at spoiled dinner dates, a wild drunken scene at a fancy restaurant and culminate in a food fight over a lavish banquet table presumably set out for an important shindig.
Chytilová didn’t like to call Daisies, or any of her films, feminist. However, it’s hard not to see Daisies as a defiant statement on the subject. The central pair in the film do everything in their power to shatter the ideas of how a woman should act, behave or look as they cause chaos in the male-dominated world around them. Phallic symbols are even blatantly castrated on screen at one point (in a knowingly over-the-top and comic scene). So I believe Chytilová’s dismissal of the feminist aims of her films were more to prevent them or her from being pigeonholed and other qualities of her work ignored.
Daisies also sets itself apart from other politically charged films (feminist or otherwise) by being hugely entertaining. This is no dry polemic on women’s rights and there are no extended, beard-stroking, philosophical discussions on screen. It’s a riotous proto-punk film that throws a custard pie in the face of the establishment without drilling home any blatant messages that are generally preaching to the converted elsewhere.
On top of the manic activities of its protagonists, the film is playful in its style. Chytilová throws dozens of cinematic tricks into the mix, such as jumping between various tints of monochrome and full-colour footage, and an interesting split colour technique where the different layers of colour in the celluloid play out at slightly different times. The editing and sound design are experimental too, with some bold and unusual cuts turning the film into a wild collage of material more than a straight-up, narrative-driven experience. The score is also quite abstract, with frequent jumps to old-fashioned brass band dance numbers to contrast the modern trends on screen.
Playful filmmaking such as this was more commonplace (in the West at least) after the ‘summer of love’ the year following Daisies, and many psychedelic films of this era have aged badly. Even well-loved counter-culture titles from the late 60s and early 70s like Easy Rider feel very much ‘of their time’, but Daisies somehow doesn’t feel dated. Yes, there are elements of the filmmaking that have a 60s sensibility, but I guess the targets of the satire here are more universal. Society is unfortunately still very male-dominated and women are still expected to adhere to certain social conventions, even if things are slowly changing.
The film ends on a surprisingly downbeat note, but it’s fitting, given the reality of the situation, and adds impact to the social commentary of the madness that preceded it. There’s a brilliant caption at the very end too stating that the “film is dedicated to all those whose sole source of indignation is a trampled-on trifle”. This perhaps suggests that Chytilová expected the film would be banned or at least criticised by the authorities for its “depicting the wanton”, as it was. Indeed, one of the main things the socialist government took offence at was the waste of food on screen.
With its lack of structure and wacky nature, it’s not a film everyone will warm to, but I found it an infectious, anything-goes middle finger to the establishment and the expectations put on women in particular. I wouldn’t have thought an experimental feminist film would ever appeal to me, but it’s a playful riot of cinema that doesn’t let you get bored for a second whilst it tears polite society a new one.
Daisies is out on 22nd October on Blu-Ray in the UK (a DVD version has been out for a while too), released by Second Run. The picture and audio quality are very good. There are some visible flecks on the picture at times, but it seems to fit the wild shift of visual formats and otherwise the image is very detailed and the colours and textures look natural.
A few special features are included too:
– Daisies (Sedmikrásky, 1966) presented from a new HD transfer from original materials by the Czech National Film Archive
– Audio Commentary by Daughters of Darkness Samm Deighan and Kat Ellinger
– Audio Commentary by film historians Daniel Bird and Peter Hames
– Journey (Cesta, 2004): Jasmina Blaževič’s acclaimed documentary film portrait of director Vera Chytilová
– Booklet with writing on the film by author and film programmer Peter Hames
– New and improved English subtitle translation
– Region Free Blu-ray (A/B/C)
– Original soundtrack in Dual Mono 24-bit LPCM audio
It’s a very strong collection of supplemental material. The two commentaries dissect the film in great detail and cover aspects of Chytilová’s life and career without stepping on each other’s toes. ‘Journey’ takes a less academic approach, instead offering an intimate and personal look at the director and her life. It’s a touching film and a nice counterpoint to the commentaries (which are still very rewarding in their own right of course).