Daisies isn’t just my favorite film of the Czech new Wave, nor is it only my favorite Czech film period. It is one of my all time favorite films, up there with Vivre Sa Vie and Persona. It also just happens to be the first film I saw when I was introduced to fine film. As far as whatever makes a film great in terms of personal experience – this one does it for me.
I’ll give you a heads up – I’m going to get into with this film. Apologies if I come across as an egg-head, but I just love it SO much and I think it is so deeply important, that I can’t help myself. This film is the first example I have ever seen of someone embodying the philosophical constructs of jouissance and “libidinal economy” (one based upon abundance instead of scarcity) in such a cheerfully affirmative act of negation, blowing social and political dialectics away. It is possible that Jaques Rivette based Celine and Julie go Boating (another film I adore) on Daisies, as he was a fan of Chytilová and had written about her before he made that film.
Vera Chytilova’s Daisies (1966) is a completely instinctual and abstract, playful and ruthless, Intellectual and infantile all at the same time. I - like other people I know (read) who adore film, was literally trembling with excitement when I saw this film. I have a similar response when i watch it over.
Although Daisies is a film of the Czech new Wave but it doesnt have much in common - except for a departure from traditional narrative – with the other films of the movement that dwell on a kind of social realism. If you want a way to place her, a nice quote from The Pinnoccio Theory website is: Chytilova, you might say, plays Godard to Jiri Menzel‘s Truffaut. (Chytilova and Menzel went to FAMU, the famed Czech film school together, become close friends, and occasionally worked together — see the biography of Chytilova here).
Daisies is a riot of color, jump cuts and shock cuts and deliberate mismatches, garish pictorial inserts, incongruous nondiegetic music and sounds, and anti-naturalistic special effects. Sometimes the screen is in color, sometimes in black and white, sometimes tinted with monochromat filters, and sometimes awash in crazed pixelation (? — or whatever the pre-digital equivalent of this might be) effects. The film as a whole is a relentless assault — against film conventions and forms and indeed cinema itself, against social norms and rules and indeed society itself, and finally against the spectator. This assault is violently nihilistic, but it is also utterly joyous and gleeful: an explosion of affect, in which I share as I watch.
Daisies delights just as much as it shocks. According to many of the sources I researched, it has never been given the proper place as important in cinematic history, or even amongst avant-garde and experimental films. This could be partly due to the problematic associations with discussing the film – it’s so hard to find the right words to describe Daisies.
Here is a wonderful quote from Owen Hatherley who wrote about this on his blog The Measures Taken:
Or, from Czechoslovakia just prior to its brief experiment in ‘socialism with a human face’, there is the extraordinary formalism of Vera Chytilova’s 1966 film Daisies: one of the most stunning profusions of effects, colours, jarring techniques in cinematic history, a film utterly in love with its own aimless exuberance. The film has always been treated somewhat sniffily- either by the apparachtiks who banned it, or from western critics, for whom the film failed to fit into the sombre mode of the East European film- no struggles against a Kafkaesque bureaucracy, no method-acting male heroes, no interminable Kunderian love affairs-and an irritatingly ambiguous political import, as the film could be interpreted easily enough as Stalinist, consumerist, sexist, feminist or Anarchist, depending on one’s prejudice (the Time Out Film Guide is especially savage). More precisely, the director herself described it as being about ‘destruction or the desire to destroy’.
It is hard enough to be noticed as a mediocre female artist (and we are talking the 1960′s here) but to be an extraordinary female artist is to be ignored, buried and never referred to. Perhaps (and lets face it most probably) this is the problem behind the invisibility of Daisies. The first time I saw this film I was horrified I’d never heard of it. Of course, someone who was very very good to me sent me a burnt copy – I can’t even get the film in a DVD store here. The film is as ignored as is possible with a film of this calibre.
it is a double shame, when one considers the importance of liberating the film from conventional cinematic pleasures that might draw its repetitive comforts from heterosexual male domination and female subordination. After Laura Mulvey wrote her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (1975), the political film debate raged over the possibility that feminist film making wold therefore have to be didactic, alienating and intelectualising. However, a decade before Mulvey wrote her article, Chytilova had answered this question. The sheer joy of Daisies owes nothing to the mechanisms of identification and objectification, sadism and paranoia. Daisies works, despite the fact that we have not got a decent enough language to identify how and why it works. This in itself has a lot to do with why it sits on the sidelines of films history.
The plot – if you can all it that – follows two young women, Marie 1 and Marie 2 who decide (to a montage of newsreel footage of destroyed cities and collapsing buildings) that as the world is ‘spoiled’, so will they be. Similar to Chaplins Marionette, Marie and Marie decide that they are ‘dolls’, and act accordingly in the opening scenes the movement of their joints sounds like the creak of a door, walking round the room produces a metallic clatter.
The two Maries decide to spoil themselves in various forms of anti social behaviour. Initially their ‘spoiling’ takes the form,of going on innumerable dinners with older men, in order to eat and drink as luxuriously as possible. They continually squabble, but they don’t have anything at stake in these arguments and it is impossible to make any coherent distinction between them both and their points of view. One is blond and one is brunette and that is about as far as the differences go. they go out to very fancy restaurants with the older men who, we assume, are trying to seduce them. however, over and over the men are forced to simply deal with the girls raucous behaviour. Marie and Marie wear short dresses; one of them wears her hair is in ponytails; both of them put on lots of eyeshadow. They seem less like vamps than like little girls playing dress-up, or (more disagreeably) like objects of pederastic fantasy. the men never get the sex they were hoping for (or wager on) instead the girls hustle them to trains and abandon them. The girls just giggle in a giddy fashion and go off to make more trouble.
Note here, this quote again from Owen Hatherly:
An example of how the film ‘works’ can be seen in the section where the two Maries go to see a restaurant to see a dance act. As an Eastern Bloc ragtime plays, a man and a woman give 20s-referencing dances, dressed in flapper-era garb. The girls get progressively more and more drunk and begin breaking things, annoying the other guests, etc. The dancers are suddenly unnerved, frown worriedly between their moves-the other customers make complaints, and Chytilova disrupts the action by constantly changing the colour filter, draping the restaurant either in an art film grey or in sudden, severe reds and greens, the beer flowing over the table becoming a kaleidoscope of coloured bubbles. The music is reminiscent of the dialectical film music advocated by Eisler and Adorno, which would be contrapuntal, work against whatever was on screen- the music playing is clearly from a live recording, and as the diners get more irked and the staff more disgruntled, there are ecstatic cheers and applause. The girls essentially make themselves a spectacle, create from their everyday life something more than passivity- the dance of destruction is slightly reminiscent of the end of Jacques Tati’s Playtime, though here without Tati’s humanism, without his sense of a public.
The two Marie’s happily trash their own apartment and any public spaces they happen to wander through. they are always on the move here and there till finally they ride in a dumb waiter of an imposing official building where they find food and silverware lavishly and meticulously laid out for (we presume) some sort of State banquet. In the climactic sequence of the film, they proceed to trash the banquet room, stuffing themselves with giant portions of meat and poultry, devouring cake and booze, smashing plates and glasses, having tumultuous food fights, and finally swinging from the ceiling chandelier. Meantime, the soundtrack music is either portentous or martial, taken from Wagner’s Ring among other sources. Surely this is the greatest “food” sequence in the history of film.
The two Maries are not (it is important to note) sexually titillating in their bad behaviour at all. they are completely infantile. They lose no opportunity to gorge themselves. And they take a child’s pleasure in breaking stuff, shredding stuff, and burning stuff. In particular, they are continually cutting things up with scissors. This latter action resonates with “cutting” in the cinematic sense; their aggression is matched by Chytilova’s anti-continuity editing, which often cuts correctly on action or on an object, only in order to place everything abruptly into a totally different setting. In one sequence, the Maries cut up parts of their own bodies on-screen — one’s arm suddenly disappears, followed by the other’s head; finally the screen image itself gets cut, breaking up into small squares squirming all over the frame.
As here described, Daisies might sound essentially like mere individualism, a joyous consumerist protest interrupted by a statist bureaucracy. The film was critiqued by its censors for similar reasons, literally for the amount of food squandered on-screen. Chytilova maintained that in fact the film was a critique of consumerism taken to its limit. In one scene finding a trail of their own half eaten vegetables they joyously march along chanting ‘we are, we are, we are!’- they can only define themselves if there is something that definitively bears their mark. At another point they seem to accidentally walk into a socialist realist film, as Czech men cycle down cobbled streets on their way to work in a romantically misty morning. Horrified, they realise that not one of them notices their presence.
Their action is essentially based on a kind of aggressive infantilism, on a total refusal of the adult world- though not in the sense of the infantilism that marks late capitalism, where one has to pretend to be 14 in order to cope with colossal working hours, etc- this is a total, utterly dogged and dangerous infantilism.
After the Maries destroy the State banquet, the film ends with their display of remorse, and punishment for their bad behavior. This formulaic recantation is done so sarcastically that it only further accentuates the film’s overall childish glee in pure waste and destruction.
(Is it worth noting that, after the Soviet invasion of 1968, Chytilova and other Czech New Wave directors were similarly forced to make critiques and recantations of their work?) The Maries mumble their sorrow, and say that now they are happy to be socially useful, as they ostensibly put everything back in order: this involves putting the shards of broken plates back next to each other, and throwing handfuls of crumbs back together on large platters. Finally they lie down on the top of the banquet table, wearing body suits made of newspaper and papier-mache, murmuring that they are finally at peace… until the room’s enormous chandelier falls from the ceiling and crushes them in a final swoosh of multicolored pixelation. Despite this ‘punishment’ the film doesn’t give the impression of the demise of the women – rather it is a surreal contribution that has a comedic edge to it.
I will end with a wonderful quote from The Pinocchio Theory:
What’s great about Daisies is that, even as it revels in negativity and destruction, and even as its protagonists are motivated (to the extent that such language can be used in a film like this at all) by a kind of malaise, there is no sense of lack or incompletion here, no alienated subjectivity, no Lacanian not-all, no Mulveyesque dialectics and detachment, and even no Adornoesque revelation of the work’s own insufficiency — but only a joyous plenitude, an overabundance that is both affective and material, embodied in the sheer exuberance and formal inventiveness of the film itself.
The early modernist endeavor to align radical aesthetics with radical politics came to grief over the horrors of Stalinism, not to mention the ultra-conservative aesthetics of “socialist realism” that Stalin imposed. In post-War, post-Stalin, Communist Eastern Europe, Dusan Makavejev is nearly alone in endeavoring to renew the link between radical aesthetics and radical politics. Chytilova’s late modernist radical aesthetics doesn’t share any such project. It is explicitly, not just apolitical, but virulently antipolitical. Rather than simply affirming the rights of the individual against the collective — a move which would still be “political” in the conventional sense — Daisies obliterates both individual and collective in its fervidly antisocial jouissance. (The two Maries cannot exist without one another; their duality is as irreducible to any sort of heroic or existential solitude and individuality, as it is to any sort of social bond or collectivity). And this antipolitical virulence is precisely the film’s (crucial) political import: one that perhaps we need today, in our “connected” world of inescapable networks and ubiquitous commodification, as much as it was needed 40-odd years ago in the world of “actually existing socialism.”
What would a history of film, or of modernism, or of the avant-garde, or an account of strategies of resistance and evasion and refusal, that took proper and full account of Daisies look like?
If you haven’t seen this you must! Must must must!