Time Capsule Review: Daisies (1966) – dir. Vera Chytilová

Note: This review is not “new”, but written back in March 2013 (wow! that’s nearly a year ago!). It has since not been updated or edited in any way. Nonetheless, it’s a review for one of my very favorite films that I remain to be extremely proud of to this day. Since it was written for a different blog I no longer regularly take part of, I’ve decided to transfer it to my current, much more active blog. I do consider one of my better write-ups (though alternate opinions are very welcome!), and I hope you all enjoy.

Few films have been as unique, powerful, rebellious, and strange as Věra Chytilová’s surreal classic from 1966, Sedmikrásky (English title: Daisies). Essentially plotless, and in many ways utterly senseless, it’s external shell presents a series of truly adorable occurrences via two carefree individuals. Upon closer inspection, however, it often turns upon itself, and is revealed as a giant middle finger toward the oppressive government and society permeating in Czechslovakia at this time. It not only sought (and succeeded in) the abrupt pissing-off of political authority; it also grasped what the modern world was familiar with until that point in time, in regards to film aesthetic, and turned it upside down. Its playful style of narrative is often mistranslated as a sort apathy toward cinematic form, almost a sort of intentional chaos, for the sake of chaos. In fact, its whirlwind of indulgent imagery does clash harshly with its underlying political and philosophical stance. These are just some of the many reasons why this film was so notorious for its time and was eventually banned. There is a method to its madness, however, as the film, to this very day, remains an important achievement in farcical feminist fare. On a personal note, I have never seen anything quite like it before, and frankly, I don’t think I ever will again.

The introductory credits are presented with a background of rotating wheels and cogs, juxtaposed with nuclear explosions and played to the tune of aggressive bongo music. This presents two ideals that were all too familiar to the Czech audiences of the mid-60’s: war and labor. The former is of a destroying principle, while the latter is thought to have progressive traits; both are seemingly masculine phenomena. This truly sets the tone for what is to come. It is at this point where we meet Marie I and Marie II, Sedmikrásky’s two protagonists (if they may even be called that).

They are shown dressed in similar bikini suits and facing the camera. They set upon a blank floor and against a blank wall, as if they were placed there like plastic models. Aside from some sight variation, they even seem to look exactly the same. When they move their arms and legs, they squeak like hinges. This introduction shows – perhaps in an exceedingly blatant manner – a symbolic representation of the utter sameness and monotony of the culture. It also gives off a sense of the conservative gender realms of identity, as both of these girls are shown to represent the receiving end of the male-centered social spectrum. Marie II places a crown of flowers on her head and asks her peer, “I look like a virgin, don’t I?”; the Czech word panna translates to both “virgin” and “doll”, a notable play on words. As these two characters speak, we get a few brief frames of a single wall collapsing forward…

wall

And it is after this point that the girls come to the imminent decision: “Everyone is spoiled… we should be spoiled too!” Marie I slaps Marie II across the face, and with the first of many obscure continuation cuts, the two girls find themselves amidst a large, colorful field, in complete opposition of the dull, oppressive atmosphere they had begun in. There, they begin to prance and hop around like rabbits, to the tune of fresh, spritely mandolin music. Thus initiates the first of many delightfully absurd moments in this film.

This introduction is vital for setting up what occurs through the rest of the film. The two Maries embark on a series of surrealist, anarchic adventures. Some of my favorite scenes in this film are those that involve food – which, ironically enough, compose the vast majority of the movie, as one way the girls rebel is through a compulsive frenzy of eating and drinking everything in sight. They go on dates with rich, white men – undoubtedly representative of the societal patriarchy – only to humiliate them, lead them on, and refuse to go home with them.

Like the explosions shown at the starting credits, these two girls clear up a path of destruction in their actions, setting fire to everything they touch (sometimes literally). However, like the spinning cogs, their actions also serve a purpose; a purpose that, on the surface, seems little more than sheer childish rebellion. The film continues in this manner. In one particular scene, Marie II teases a younger, love-sick man by stripped completely naked, covering up her naughty bits with pieces of the butterfly collection seen surrounding the set.

As she poses, he ravishes her with lustful praise: “You’re so earthly, yet so heavenly! You don’t belong to this century… Without you, my life is torture!” I take this scene as a parody of the male gaze (cinematic and societal), with the male counterpart rendered flustered and helpless at the mere sight of a naked female body. In a future scene, this same man (or is it?) calls her over the phone, verbally expelling more romantic lines, ones that are, nonetheless, empty and contrived. As this is occurring, the girls, at the other end, cut up phallic-shaped foods.

It is with these many forms of outlandish revolt against the patriarchal, hetero-normative culture that caused this film to achieve such a highly receptive reaction in its audience. Even today, these images are bound to cause quite a stir, if mainly for its madcap silliness. Chytilová also reflects this in her disjunct editing, refusal of narrative tradition, and a general overthrowing of aesthetic order in art norms.

As I’ve implied before, it really is quite difficult to pinpoint the exact message that Vera Chytilová is trying to emit with this film. While many scenes, as pointed above, lead toward a protest against male-dominated realms, and others seem to be a general anarchist stance toward general modernity and culture, about halfway through, the film takes a bit of a different approach. After stealing a bundle of corn stalks from a gardener, the girls are disgruntled to realize that no one is noticing them. This leads them to wonder is their physical selves have disappeared into thin air, or whether they even exist at all.

After these two characters have separated themselves from “normal” generalizations of female representation, Chytilová is now using this new – albeit rather strange – conflict to stress the subjective individual. Now that these two are abject from the world around them, to whom or what can they be important? The narrative quickly offers a rebuttal: it is to themselves, and themselves alone, that they are most important. Once the shackles of patriarchy can become unraveled, it is in their femininity and unique sense of self they can relish the most. They confidently assure themselves, “Anyway, we are young, after all. We’ve got our whole life ahead of us!” They look behind them and see that they have left a trail of corn husks. They then march around and triumphantly chant, “We exist, we exist, we exist…”

(Here, I should note that, in general, these images haven’t been drastically color-corrected in any way. It goes to show just how rebellious this film is, not only narratively, but visually as well.)

However, this light-hearted approach is bound to come with its dark repercussions. As the ending of this film reveals, Sedmikrásky is not a praise of the possibilities of feminine strength and individuality, but rather a fierce critique on the society that disallows these expressions and privileges. Marie I and Marie II soon embark upon a large dining room, complete with a lengthy table, a large chandelier, and as much delicious food as one could imagine. Keeping tradition with their previous behavior, the girls begin to savagely feast on these offerings, ignoring utensils and drinking glass after glass of wine. This is soon punctuated by a frenzied food fight…

 …which, in turn, evolves into a playful fashion show.

Suddenly, the girls are seen drowning amidst a boat in a deep body of water, a representation of “punishment” for their actions. This implies society’s rejection of this type of feminine demeanor, a denial of subversive behavior of the lesser sex. The strict models and notions that create these structures of society leave no room for creativity and liberal expression. Even when the two Maries are given a second chance, all hope seems lost. They arrive back in the dining room, dressed in shards of newspaper, and stealthily clean up the place, returning objects and structures back to their proper order.

However, despite their efforts, they are still met with an untimely death: that caused by the collapse of the large, elaborate chandelier.

Thus, Věra Chytilová’s Sedmikrásky is more than just a film that playfully embraces female identification against oppressive structures of culture and modernity; it also demonstrates the suppression of the structures themselves and how they can collapse upon themselves. Combining traits of anarchy, absurdity, farce, and even slapstick humor, Marie I and Marie II express their independence and self-confidence, showing that there is no sympathy for the limitations of gender roles. They are rebellious, emotional, instinctual, powerful, and everything that the conservative forces fear the most. However, the film also contrasts this with the harsh realities of the world at this time. They are imprisoned in the binds of stereotypical lenses that carves out their expectations as female bodies, and efforts to resist these definitions seem futile. It is these rebellious impulses that are subdued and create grounds for punishment, until these two girls are forced to comply and state, “We don’t want to be spoiled anymore!” Nonetheless, it is through Chytilová’s ambitious filmmaking and outspoken criticism that Sedmikrásky has come to resonate in the hearts and minds of so many individuals – myself included. It is beautiful, bizarre, funny, unpredictable, smart, and every viewing is more enlightening than the last. It’s a film that I think anyone who loves film should watch at least twice: one viewing to simply go along for the ride, and another to observe intellectually. Like the collapsing wall at the very beginning, this film proposes a tipping-over of traditional values and oppressive norms, and the mark it has left behind is unignorable and vital in making it undeniable classic in surrealist cinema.

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4 Responses to Time Capsule Review: Daisies (1966) – dir. Vera Chytilová

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