"Never mind. Bohemia's beautiful too."
A Companion Piece to Vera Chytilová’s Film Daisies
By Susan Chau
Life is a farce when people don’t become what they want. When people buy into what society says they’re supposed to do. Girls and boys who are always obedient can become destructive because they’re always suppressing their actual desires. Life is a farce and nothing matters. Daisies is a moral farce where the two Maries (Marie 1 and Marie 2) are nothing but two silly marionette puppets who move through life destroying everything in their wake.
Daisies is a 1966 Czech avant-garde film that represents the new agency (or found freedom?) of the generation it was filmed in. It was the hippie generation that believed money is evil and life is absurd. Ironically, the times were the “swinging sixties” as it was called, and saw the emergence of youth culture with groups such as The Beatles. The sixties became a period of huge economic growth. In 1961 the communist regime in East Germany built a wall across Berlin to prevent citizens from escaping to a freer life in the west. 1960’s changes in leadership led to a series of reforms to soften and humanize the application of communist doctrines within Czech borders. However, to the Czech youth, like the two Maries, it was still oppression any way you slice it. From this landscape Vera Chytilová emerged as a filmmaker who wanted to make a film with absolute creative freedom: no rules or restrictions in narrative or structure.
Chytilová was a Dadaist and Daisies embodies all the characteristics of Dadaism. Dadaism was a movement in art and literature that is based on humor, whimsy and nonsense. The film was also Surrealist because it was all about unusual behavior and imagery that seemed almost dreamlike – dreamlike in the way dreams juxtapose objects and symbols that tap into our unconscious. Do you ever recall seeing a painting of a melting clock in the desert? That’s by Salvador Dalí, the most famous surrealist painter. Dalí was friends with Luis Buñuel who was the surrealist filmmaker who made many notable films. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and Belle de Jour with Catherine Deneuve are two of his most well-known films. This playfulness in Daisies combined with Czech vaudeville (comedy and dancing!) and Buster Keaton moves brought about this totally free form non-narrative storytelling.
You could also call Daisies Absurdist Avant-Garde Feminist Art. Although Chytilová probably wouldn’t agree with the “feminist art” bit. That’s a big description to unpack, but let’s try. I don’t think any artist/filmmaker who happens to be female likes to have her work be labeled as “feminist”. I don’t think every artist/filmmaker who happens to be female intends their art to be feminist. By labeling a work as feminist it can overshadow the other qualities of the work. This is fun, let’s keep defining these terms…! What is absurdist art? What is avant-garde? And the motherlode, what is feminist art, if such a thing exists?
So, let’s start with avant-garde. Avant-garde is used to describe new and unusual or experimental ideas. This sounds broad, but it’s often very original and niche. Avant-garde is (originally) a French term, which in means: vanguard, advance guard, ahead of the rest. Daisies is definitely a film that was experimental and ahead of its time. It’s experimental in its playful style and mixture of all these forms and movements. In terms of filmmaking, avant-garde films are most often defined by their unique erratic editing style, associative cutting and collage. Andy Warhol made long silent films shot on Super 16 mm film including the famous fake Burger King commercial and many others such as the film with long takes of New York city or the silent auditions of Edie Sedgewick sitting in front of the camera. All that could be considered experimental/avant-garde because it was innovative and didn’t have any traditional narrative with beginning, middle and end.
Daisies is a film that breaks all codes of femininity. They go on dates with what the Japanese call “Salary men”, eat with despicable manners, take massive bites and overindulge. They do this with complete abandon moving from one man to another. In fact, food along scenes of domesticity is used a lot in feminist art and films (e.g. Chantal Ackerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles and Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party). In one scene the two Maries play with food; cut sausages and eggs with scissors as if they were playing with paper dolls. The film has many collages of food, a plethora of images, which the viewer simultaneously consumes. Rather than being passive female objects the two Maries are carnal and carnivorous consuming many foods for pure entertainment.
The mise en scène or production design as we call it in America is full of montages of collages. It’s a film that doesn’t use traditional Hollywood production design. It was a low budget film that utilized editing to create more of a visual and surreal experience. There was no need to create actual scenes when the film doesn’t have traditional narratives or scenarios. In Daisies we see associative cutting and collage where instead of cutting on movement or story beats it’s more of a patchwork style of imagery. The production designer for Daisies, Ester Krumbachová, created a world where the props, backdrops of feminine objects and colorful interstitials all sang together like the rambling of the two Maries. It’s an opulent style that allowed the two protagonists to consume, commiserate and stomp through. Her vision and hand was like a kaleidoscope of texture and earthy girly wonderment. Ester Krumbachová was not only a production and set designer she was also a screenwriter, costume designer and director. The Lincoln Center Film Society heralded her as a “Master of the Czech New Wave”. Much like Agnès Varda of the French New Wave, she collaborated with many of the greats of her generation of filmmakers like Vera Chytilová and Jan Nêmec whom she was a muse to.
Daisies is a consumptive deluge of waste and images. In fact, Daisies was banned for its excessive food waste and also, though not as explicitly stated, for the distaste of the depiction of the two wanton woman. In contrast The Gleaners and I by Agnès Varda carefully collects and preserves the waste that is being discarded. Varda gleans or gathers what she sees such as the humble and precious heart-shaped potato she finds in The Gleaners and I. However, Daisies is a film that is very self-aware of its spoiled and destructive message. Sure it’s a playful rebellion against being typical society girls and points its cake-filled heels at the establishment, however if you pay close attention to the dialogue there is a sober acknowledgement of being or finding oneself in a spoiled state. The film begins with absurd dialogue of empty and meaningless exchanges. One can almost envision the beginning of Beckett’s absurdist play Waiting for Godot with its two hapless characters, but instead it’s two girls in bikinis, or two virgins rather, under a tree as we see in the opening. The film posits:
“Everything’s going bad in this world.”
“If everything’s going bad… so… we’re going… bad… as… well… right!”
Daisies an existential film at its core that uses the vehicle of destruction to ask this somewhat bleak question, “Does it even matter?” In the bathtub scene the question of existence arises. “How do you know if you exist?” Without being registered or work, “There is no proof you exist” says Marie. In other words, you’re just a number to the government. Daisies is saying that day after day we give up our dreams for the goals of the tyrannical government regime, for the greater good of all citizens. At the end of the day people who were killed during the Cold War also didn’t get to become what they wanted because they were always deserting their dreams for the greater good of society.
Daisies is a cathartic outpouring of food and images that spills towards the final banquet scene of destruction. In the final scene in the large banquet hall the film circles back to its original question when Marie 1 asks, “Does it even matter?” Marie 2 replies, “If we’re good and hard-working we’ll be happy.” Does choosing the proper path of society guarantee one’s happiness? By the end of the film, as in all good films, it casts a long shadow back to the beginning and restates the question: Does it even matter? Adding after all the destruction… “Can you mend what’s been destroyed?” Now they want to do everything right, but is it too late? How does one start over after so much is ruined? It’s a film of exaggerated extremes that playfully exercises all the forms of art and experimental film to poke at and poke fun at these eternal questions.
*The Czech New Wave describes a movement in Czech and Slovak cinema of the late 1960’s and 1970’s. Czech New Wave films typically contained wry satires of the Communist Party and Czech society, a willingness to deal with sexual themes, the casting of non-professional actors, and the use of documentary techniques to present fictional stories. Routledge Encyclopedia of Modernism
*The French New Wave (La Nouvelle Vague) was a film movement that emerged in the late 1950’s in Paris, France. The movement was characterized by its rejection of traditional filmmaking conventions in favor of experimentation and personal expression. nofilmschool.com