Daisies – “A High-Punk, High-Art, High-Feminist one of a Kind”
Everything is Terrible in Bikinis – Alt-Rebellion as a Means of Disrupting the Patriarchy
Daisies is an appropriate film for the exciting realm of Cinema Eclectica. It is a 1960s Czech avante-garde film about two bored girls who decide that, as the world has been spoiled, that they too will be spoiled and subsequently tear through life in a rampage of destruction. Daisies is a loosely structured film of free-form ideas rather than narrative. It is still seen as a radical film today because of its artistic realisation, feminism, and criticism of the communist patriarchy.
The film is surreal and replaces representation with metaphor. This can be confusing as it breaks the rules of easy-to-follow, conventional narrative cinema. The film is transgressive by disrupting what the film industry has previously dictated a film should be in terms of structure, content, character and so on. This means the audience is regularly jolted out of their composure rather than carried hypnotically into the film, not passively watching a nice story like a child. The viewer is seeing the director’s truth and hopefully being provoked into taking action. Chytilová said that not telling the truth should be illegal. She hoped to wake people enough to notice they were being oppressed by a system that was lying and hypocritical.
The director wanted to do something “with a second level” and this is what she has achieved. On one level it is about two girls rebelling and spoiling the world around them, and on the other level, it is about corruption, feminism, and so on. The danger with a film like Daisies is that by omitting the conventions of narrative, the film is consumed by symbolism which can obscure meaning. This, however, was an essential safety measure.
As a broadly content western viewer in 2018, I don’t know how it felt to be living in Czechoslovakia in 1966 so, in isolation, the film may seem heavy-handed in conveying obviously symbolic imagery. However, in context, the film’s message is an appropriate response to totalitarianism. According to the director, “We wanted to speak about the ideological situation at the time.” The Czechoslovakia of the period had emerged from wartime Nazi governance to yet more oppression in the form of communism from 1948 onwards. Daisies is an admirably robust artistic retaliation to an oppressive regime. So while some content is less than subtle, other truths had to be conveyed with greater caution. The film is a bold response to the state’s attempt to dictate what constitutes art. Socialist realist art has a certain naïve charm but an artist will tell you that any compression of the creative process will ultimately distill a purer, fiercer form of art, however illegal. Daisies must have been like opening the door to the magical land of Oz after sitting through a compulsory 7-hour celebration of asphalt. After an initial ban for a year, it was allowed, following international plaudits. The fact the authorities didn’t understand it helped too.
Chytilová and cinematographer Jaruslav Kučera show us how colourful life can be by casting artistic spells: colour gels over the camera, long exposures, jump cuts, and dazzling collage sequences. Prismatic distortion blurs colour into its chromatographic elements. The film is interrupted with rapid-fire still photographs of butterflies, flowers, autumn leaves, illustrating themes of the potential for transformation, the circle of life. This in partnership with the constant random activities of the girls keeps the viewer alert as if the director is prodding us, saying, “Wake up! Being servile is not living.”
Chytilová gives her film two voracious female protagonists, Marie I and Marie II who never cease to grab life for themselves, saying “One should try everything!” The authorities expect their womenfolk to be attractive, maternal and homely, and very little else. Society’s allotted roles (for the masses), though moral, are one-dimensional to the girls. To be immoral, therefore, would at least give them control over their own destinies.
As the film goes on their appearance deteriorates. The ‘ladylike’ ideals of behaviour are high maintenance so they become slovenly and more careless with others’ feelings, especially older men. We shouldn’t feel too sorry for the men though: they are married, and financially secure enough to attempt to bribe attractive younger women into bed with food and wine. The protagonists disrupt convention and cause scandal. They gigglingly totter away from the men after being fed and at a cabaret, their drunken behaviour draws the eyes of the audience away from a dance act. They are the news.
Being powerless and expected merely to be pretty and little else is a half-life which turns women into exhibits. Chytilová shows us that real human beings need autonomy and purpose. Without it, they may be forced into rebellion and crime, the opposite of the creative ideal, a theme which the director explored previously in Ceiling and Something Different, with the idea that the devil finds work for idle hands. The girls know their behaviour is wrong and say they have “gone bad”. At one point they say that without a job, they don’t exist. But they are real and have depth: they debate existence, love, good and evil. Added to the amount of food they consume, they prove themselves substantial.
Food is a feminist issue. Eating is a huge theme running through the film and it is not concerned solely with sustenance but is used as a revolutionary act. It shows us the girls’ nascent desire to take in as much of life as possible and helps fill their emptiness, grounding them in the world. For women especially, food has always been a tightly controlled physical and psychological part of life. As the traditional heart of the home, the woman controls the food and its rationing. This was also enforced by the Czech state. Yet our two anti-heroines eat everything in sight. The Maries enthusiastically proceed to chomp their way through restaurant meals, phallic legumes, cash crops, and a buffet, like they’re rehearsing to play the head and tail-end of some lost panto version of The Very Hungry Caterpillar.
The most prominent food scene is a final set piece that was banned by the Czech government. A room is laid out with a feast of beautiful dishes prepared by chefs, like the cover of a 1960s cookbook but without the unrealistically trim, aproned lady with the immaculate perm. The girls gorge themselves wastefully and proceed to destroy the banquet and the room itself. At a time of food shortages, the authorities criticised such bourgeois consumerism as decadent, failing to note the irony of who this stateroom banquet might be for.
Chytilová gives her film two silly yet substantial female protagonists going on an often nonsensical journey for 75 minutes of feminine free expression. How often does that happen in cinema? If her protagonists had been men protesting gender politics, firstly they would not need to rebel as they were already in charge, nationally and domestically. Secondly, their rebellion would be much bloodier. Thirdly, the girl’s rebellion does not leave a power vacuum, like when the Nazis left Czechoslovakia. It leaves a vacancy for a pretty servant, which the traditional men of the period would not step into. The girls are taking down the patriarchy by showing the viewer how to go on strike as a female. Chytilová provides a uniquely woman-centered manifesto for rebellion: Attend to yourself first. Don’t prepare food, procure it for free, eat as much as you can or destroy it. Don’t dote on your man, have several men you don’t care about. Don’t keep your house clean, set fire to it. Keep Going. The jaded realist in me would also add ‘Know it’s all going to be there waiting for you to tidy up when you’re done rebelling’.
The film criticises the communist patriarchy, not just through feminism but also by presenting the viewer with a more natural alternative to the machines and concrete. Daisies is topped and tailed by aerial bombing missions and a nuclear explosion. This is a freestanding anti-war message but also can be read as an indication of where Chytilová believes patriarchal systems have brought us, in an obsession with conflict and profit. The parenthetical structure feels depressingly inevitable. In an early sunny scene of sunbathing the Maries agree that, even though it appears the sun is shining on the communist state, “everything is terrible”. Nature is held up as a craved ideal and, to a director raised as a strict Catholic, Eden especially is a recurring image in many of her films. Chytilová sets up a binary between feminine creation and masculine war. Nature acts like a re-set switch, a place where the girls can properly remember who they are meant to be as grounded human animals. Even at their worst moments, a jump cut pulls the girls back to nature, the perennial place of fresh starts.
Chytilová’s parting shot is a caption that dedicates the film to those whose sole source of indignation is the scene of food wastage, rather than other much darker horrors of the State. It is remarkable that the film was made at all. Daisies blossomed in the Prague Spring where artistic and media regulations were loosened. As one of the director’s early films, it may have been forced to tone down its anti-authoritarian message, but it still punches above its weight in terms of innovation.
The Soviet Union reinvaded Czechoslovakia in 1968 and put an end to the reforms, enforcing a further twenty years of soviet control, under which Chytilová found it increasingly hard to work. Five decades after its release, it is easy to see why Věra Chytilová was thought a danger to communism and why Daisies remains important viewing for societies under oppression.