Something Different / A Bagful of Fleas
Before we get into Second Run’s new release of Věra Chytilová’s debut film and the short that preceded it, let’s take a second to acknowledge that all of Chytilová’s 1960s work (barring her contribution to the 1965 anthology film Pearls of the Deep) is now available on British DVD. This is a situation that, just two years ago, seemed unimaginable. Prior to her death in 2014 the only film of hers available in this country was 1966’s iconic Daisies (also on Second Run). While it would have been nice if she’d have lived to see this revival of interest in her work, let’s be grateful for what we’ve got; a cast-iron argument that she was one of the greatest and most innovative film-makers of all time.
The picture that emerges is of an artist who was not only at odds with conventional cinema, but also her own previous work, as every single Věra Chytilová film is radically different from the last one. A Bagful of Fleas and Something Different were made in 1962 and 1963 respectively, and they are both, to some extent, low-key, realistic works. It’s astonishing to think that three years later she would make Daisies, one of the least realistic films ever made where every single scene contains some kind of outrageous absurdity.
Or maybe it isn’t. For all neither of the films on this disc demolish the fourth wall as gleefully as Daisies did, they are both deeply concerned with ideas of reality and artifice in a way that fits in with Chytilová’s other films and the Czech New Wave in general. A Bagful of Fleas – the title is a Czech expression roughly analogous to “like herding cats” – is a mock-documentary about boredom and rebellion among female factory workers. The workers are played by women who really did work at the factory where the film was shot, in the manner of Milos Forman’s The Firemen’s Ball. There is also another self-reflexive element, a combination of voiceover and to-camera addresses which implies the camera is meant to represent an off-screen character’s POV.
The postmodern and realist elements of A Bagful of Fleas do not entirely gel, and the amateur cast occasionally seem awkward in the more dramatic moments. (The purely observational ones of the girls hanging out and joking, on the other hand, are completely convincing) It was still successful enough to be paired with Chytilová’s other short Ceiling (available on Second Run’s release of Fruit of Paradise) as a feature-length compilation released in Czech cinemas prior to Something Different. It might be here that Chytilová got the idea for her debut feature proper.
Something Different also contains two narratives, but rather than play one after the other as the short compilation did, it alternates between them on a scene-by-scene basis in the manner of William Faulkner’s novel The Wild Palms, (aka If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem). The first story is a documentary about an Olympic gymnast, Eva Bosáková, and her fraught relationship with her older husband and trainer. The second is a fictional film starring Chytilová’s regular collaborator Vera Uzelacová as a housewife and mother whose frustration at her life leads her into an affair.
You can see how advanced Chytilová’s thinking is from the very start. After a lovely opening credits sequence showing Eva practicing, the camera pans out to reveal this scene being watched on television by Vera. We follow Vera around for a typical day, then see her settle her children down for bed. One of them asks to be read a fairy tale – and Chytilová cuts straight to Eva, as though this is the story she tells them. Even the knowledge that Eva’s story is documentary footage and Vera’s isn’t can’t make this any less destabilising. Is Eva a real person in Vera’s world, or is she a fairytale heroine? There certainly seems to be little stylistic difference to help us understand which narrative strand is non-fiction: if anything, the fictional story is more likely to be shot in the single-camera format of a standard cinema verite film.
The reason to stick with all of these rug-pulls is simple: it works, and it works astonishingly well. Both stories feel like they add layers to the meaning and social criticism of the other – without the intertwining, they might have felt slight. Together, they are constantly fascinating, and Chytilová and her editor Miroslav Hàjek conjure up a battery of witty and inventive ways to intercut them. For all Something Different is critical of the roles assigned to women in 1960s Czechoslovakia, it never lets its politics weigh it down. It remains to the end a breezy, charming film whose sheer innovation is a joy in itself.
SPECIAL TWO-FILM EDITION CONTENTS:
- Something Different (1963) presented from a brand new HD transfer of the film
- A Bagful of Fleas (1962) presented from a brand new 2K HD restoration of the film
- Original Czech soundtracks in mono audio
- New and improved English subtitle translations
- Booklet featuring a new essay by author, Czech cinema expert and film programmer Peter Hames
SOMETHING SPECIAL / A BAGFUL OF FLEAS – TWO FILMS BY VERA CHYTILOVA ARE NOW AVAILABLE ON SECOND RUN DVD