The Czech director Věra Chytilová is best known internationally for her 1966 film Daisies, a ferocious, antic and relentlessly original comedy about two young women carrying out a Dadaist rebellion against the staidness of Czechoslovakian society. Although Daisies seems to become more and more acclaimed as a classic with each passing year, the rest of her work isn’t being reappraised at the same rate. Frankly, Daisies is so unique it’s hard to imagine the director ever making another film – it would mean there was another film like it out there somewhere, and that can’t possibly be the case, surely?
Now Second Run, who also released the Region 2 DVD of Daisies, have added to their growing library of phenomenal Czech cinema with Chytilová’s 1998 film Traps. To understand Traps we need to look at Chytilová’s career after Daisies, as well as the history of Czechoslovakia. When the country’s president Alexander Dubček announced a new programme of “socialism with a human face” in 1968, the Soviet Union and their allies decided this was an unforgivable deviation from their programme of socialism with an iron fist. They invaded and repealed Dubček’s liberal reforms, a disaster for the country and for Chytilová, who never met an orthodoxy she didn’t hate. She was all but blacklisted from 1969 to 1976.
The film that ended her exile from the Czechoslovakian film industry was 1976’s The Apple Game, generally agreed to be one of her least adventurous films. Traps, her first film after the separation of the Czech republic from Slovakia in 1993, is perhaps closer to The Apple Game than Daisies. Shot in mostly unbroken, handheld takes and lurid colours, it lacks the earlier film’s jolting shifts of film stock, conceptual gags and outrageous moments of unreality. The provocations come in its content, rather than its form.
That said: what provocations they are! The opening credits haven’t ended before we’ve been confronted with graphic footage of pigs being castrated, and as soon as we’ve got past that Chytilová cuts to a fat politician forcing his wife to recite Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If…’ while they have sex. One of the unexpected pleasures of Traps is seeing how good Chytilová is at plotting; the first act introduces a Victorian novel’s worth of characters in a completely natural and coherent manner, and builds perfectly to the end of act one, in which said fat politician – Dohnal – and his PR agent buddy Petr find a young woman and rape her.
Traps is nothing if not morbidly funny, and despite its obvious feminist sympathies Chytilová even dares to introduce gallows humour into the rape scene, as Dohnal abandons his plan to cut his victim’s underwear off when he breaks a nail. The real humour – and horror – comes straight afterwards, though, when it is revealed that Lenka, their victim, is a vet specialising in the castrations we have already seen in the opening credits. She gets Petr and Donhal drunk, and while they’re asleep she practices her, erm, special trade upon them.
Astonishingly, this isn’t the height of the movie’s perversity, as it then morphs into a sort of buddy road-movie as Petr and Donhal stagger around, their testicles in a metal jar, looking for someone to reattach them. Tomáš Hanák and Miroslav Donutil, as the emasculated twosome, give great comic turns here, their bandy-legged walking and frequent yelps of pain providing a wincingly funny reminder of what they’ve just suffered. Yet the wonder of the film lies in its script – Chytilová is a peerless ventriloquiser of the self-pity of truly awful men, particularly when Petr wonders why he should have been punished along with Dohnal. After all, he only held her down, he didn’t even rape her himself!
In the third act, Chytilová delves into Lenka’s psyche, and somehow manages to fit a sensitive portrayal of a rape victim’s PTSD in what is otherwise a winningly tasteless comedy. She also raises the question that vigilante movies usually shy away from; what happens when law and order tries to reassert itself? But for the most part, the success of Traps can be measured in how many times it makes you laugh – which is a lot, especially at the bits you might be embarrassed to admit you laughed at afterwards. There are no extras, apart from the typically great Second Run booklet, this time by Carmen Grey. But for non-Czech viewers who are curious about the paths Chytilová’s career took after Daisies, the availability of the film is a wonderful bonus in itself.