Fruit of Paradise
The utterly unique career of Věra Chytilová, and the story of Czech cinema in general, finds itself at a crossroads with 1970’s Fruit of Paradise, now released on DVD by Second Run Films. It feels like the product of a golden age; as noted in Peter Hames’s hugely informative booklet, talent like composer Zdenek Liska and writer Ester Krumbachová have CVs that read like a Czech culture ministry list of the country’s greatest ever films. There’s Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, The Cremator, The Party and the Guests, Marketa Lazarová… and, of course, Chytilová’s own Daisies, which Fruit of Paradise is a follow-up to.
Once seen, never forgotten, Daisies is an anarchic comedy that batters film convention into submission. Fruit of Paradise opens with a ten-minute short that plays as if Chytilová was worried Daisies was too restrained. To operatic music by Liska, Chytilová retells the story of Adam and Eve using solarized images overlaid with a constant, flickering kaleidoscope of natural textures – rock, moss, the veins of leaves. It is an overwhelming thing, a mind-expanding pantheistic statement, one of cinema’s most rapturous treatments of religion. It is also a mere overture to what she has planned for the rest of the film.
The set-up of Fruit of Paradise is a modern version of the Adam and Eve story, with Jitka Novákova as a bored, rebellious young woman fascinated by the appearance of a devilish, red-suited figure in the woods. Having established the key theme of the story in the prologue, Chytilová and Krumbachová run riot, blending elements of murder mysteries, sex comedies, fairy tales, slapstick comedy and unexpected drum solos into their narrative. The freeform, dream-like atmosphere is equal to the best work of David Lynch or Maya Deren, and an eerie scene involving Novákova frenziedly going through a chest of drawers in a tumbledown house might have influenced Chytilová’s countryman Jan Svankmajer when he came to direct his version of Alice in Wonderland.
As usual with Chytilová, there are strong comic elements – I defy any viewer to keep a straight face when the postman turns up – but this time there is something quite anguished underneath the wildness. One of Chytilová’s last films was called Expulsion from Paradise, and she is constantly, keenly aware here that the story of Adam and Eve is one of a terrible loss. By the time Fruit of Paradise was released, the Soviet Union had invaded Czechoslovakia, beginning a wave of authoritarian reforms that would make it very hard for wild talents like Chytilová and Svankmajer to make films during the early 1970s.
In his booklet, Hames looks at the film’s key theme of refusal of knowledge in this light, saying that, for the next two decades, Czechoslovakian life would involve a lot of officially-mandated forgetting. The idea of a lost garden of freedom, too, must have been very raw for domestic audiences on the film’s release. Looked at today, it feels like a forgotten paradise in a very different way; as with a lot of other radical cinema of the 1960s, it is startling how fresh, new and innovative it feels. That is, of course, a testament to Chytilová’s genius, but it’s also a reflection of how so few film-makers since then have accepted that generation’s challenge of pushing the boundaries of cinema while remaining entertaining, provocative and engaging.
Chytilová would survive. Unlike many of her contemporaries, she remained in Czechoslovakia and eventually directed features again, though they were initially a lot more mainstream than her 1960s output. Fruit of Paradise contains her first experiment with the swooping takes and complex spatial arrangements that would later flourish in her later comedies like Traps (also released by Second Run). The sense of this DVD as an overview of Chytilová’s career is only increased by the presence of her first short, Ceiling, a fascinating, novelistic drama inspired by her early career as a fashion model.
Ceiling opens with freeze-frames, an ironic voiceover and the tableau-like staging of scenes she would develop further in Daisies, but it also contains a long second half which simply observes the protagonist in a style approaching conventional cinematic realism. Chytilová proves as skilled in this idiom as she is in all of the multitude of genres contained within Fruit of Paradise. These reissues have presented her as an almost limitless talent, with each new feature or short showing off another style or technique she mastered. Fruit of Paradise is the most complex, rich, ambitious and haunting of her films that have been released in Britain. Better than Daisies? I don’t say it lightly, but it might just be true.
• Presented from a new high-definition digital transfer prepared by the Czech National Film Archive.
• Věra Chytilová’s renowned 1961 short film Ceiling (Strop).
• 20-page booklet featuring a new essay by author and film programmer Peter Hames.
• New and improved English subtitle translation.