An Overheated Kettle That You Can’t Turn Down: “Daisies”

by Ashley Naftule

MARIE: “Everything’s going bad in this world.”
MARIE 2: “What do you mean, everything?”
MARIE: “Well, everything.”
MARIE 2: “In this world…”
MARIE: “You know what? If everything’s going bad-”
MARIE 2: “-so?”
MARIE: “We’re going…”
MARIE 2: “… bad…”
MARIE: “… as….”
MARIE 2: “… well!”

Bored girls in bikinis, wearing floral crowns and playing trumpets on the floor. Their long limbs creak like rusty door hinges. A montage of explosions, soundtracked with percussion music that sounds like it was performed by a tribe in some Looney Tunes jungle. A Garden of Eden fruit tree shaped like a mound of pubic hair. Drunken swinging from chandeliers, decades before Sia got around to it. Disembodied heads floating in an apartment, giggling with glee as their headless bodies try to carve each other up with a pair of scissors. These are just a handful of the wild sights on display in Věra Chytilová’s Daisies. It’s not a film so much as it is 76 minutes of sheer anarchy.

Released in 1966, Daisies ignited a firestorm of controversy in its home country. While the Czech New Wave was already in full swing, their film industry still had to deal with intense government scrutiny and censorship. Released in Czechoslovakia a few years before the tumult of the Prague Spring, Chytilová’s film would go to win the Grand Prix at the Bergamo Film Festival in Italy and become a hugely influential work — especially with avant-garde filmmakers and the French New Wave (it would be hard to imagine Jacques Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating without Daisies planting a few seeds of inspiration).

While Chytilová’s film earned accolades abroad, it faced a cool reception at home. It was quickly banned after its release. The official reason? “Depicting the wanton” waste of food, according to The National Assembly (the film’s climatic sequence is the giddy sabotaging of an opulent banquet). The truth, though, is that it’s hard to imagine a film like Daisies being released in ANY conservative/repressive environment and not getting immediately banned.

The film is a celebration of vice, freedom, amorality, and a poke in the eye to respectability. It’s a film that savagely (and hilariously) lampoons men, ridiculing both their libidos and their sadboy romantic crushes. In its manner of construction and presentation, it mocks the very idea of narrative, logic, character development, or offering up protagonists that you’re supposed to root for. It has no time for politics, respecting authority, or paying lip service to the virtues of being a contributing member of society. Daisies is a mangy poodle pissing on a policeman’s leg. OF COURSE it would get banned.

The “plot” (if you can call it that) is this: we follow two girls named Marie (played by Jitka Cerhová and Ivana Karbanová). One wears pigtails, the other a floral crown. One wears dark colors, the other bright tones. Those are their essential differences. In everything else, they’re united: as gluttons, eagerly devouring any food or drink they can get their hands on; in their indifference to every other human being alive; and in not giving a fuck about anything. They run date scams where Pigtails Marie gets wined and dined by older married men, and then Floral Marie crashes the date, asks the older dude a bunch of uncomfortable questions about his wife, and then they stuff their faces with cake and wine until they ditch the hapless old goat on a train heading out of town.

The dine and ditch scams are a recurring element throughout the film, like a jazz riff it keeps coming back to to give it a semblance of structure. The rest of the movie is them goofing off and spazzing out. They engage in symbolic castration sessions where they cheerfully eat pickles and cut up sausages with scissors while clueless suitors pour out their hearts on the phone. They frolic in fields, get so drunk at nightclubs that they disrupt a couple of performers doing The Charleston and get tossed out by the managers. They slice each other up with scissors, decorate their apartment with huge leaves and hundreds of phone numbers scrawled in scratchy black lettering, eat pictures of food cut out of magazines, and stumble around on train tracks while wearing polka dot dresses. They’re like Enid and Rebecca from Ghost World if they let their Ids take control. Everything else in the world is fodder to either be eaten, played with, or pranked.

What separates Chytilová’s film from so many other films about bohemian slackers dropping out of society is its radical form. The film rapid cuts from scene to scene with little context to tell you what’s going on. It switches from full color to B&W to B&W scenes shot with chromatic filters. Occasionally the film gets sped up and manipulated until it’s an animated blur of cut-up imagery.

In many ways, Daisies feels like a love letter to silent cinema. The film’s score, with its playful use of sprightly horns and percussions, sounds like something that would soundtrack a Harold Lloyd or Chaplin film. Much of the film’s fast-paced action harkens back to the precisely staged physical comedy of performers like Buster Keaton. And even the chromatic filters gives the film a throwback feel, bathing the B&W imagery in ghostly shades that you’d see in prints of old German and Swedish silent films. And while the Maries would occasionally trade clever barbs or go on tangents wondering about the nature of their existence, the truth is you could watch Daisies without subtitles and the film would make just as much sense. The wicked exuberance on the faces of Cerhová & Karbanová speaks volumes.

To be clear: Daisies is not an easy film to watch. It flies in the face of most cinematic and storytelling conventions. It feels like the kind of film that small children would “get” quicker than adults- it has the feel of a series of cartoon shorts that have been strung together. If you can imagine the Maries as being a pair of cartoon characters having a series of chaotic misadventures, the film makes a hell of a lot more sense.

But trying to make sense of it on your first watch is a mistake. I compare it to the works of filmmakers like Lynch and Bunuel: if you surrender the need to understand every single frame of Daisies and just let the images and manic pace of the film wash over you, it will capture your imagination.

Daisies was Věra Chytilová’s second feature film. She would make the even more revolutionary & avant-garde Fruit of Paradise a few years later. That film would get her an EIGHT YEARS long ban on filmmaking in Czechoslovakia. That didn’t put the filmmaker off from her work. Describing herself as “an overheated kettle that you can’t turn down,” the stubborn Chytilová would shoot commercials and other shorts during the Soviet occupation of the Czech Republic by using her husband Jaroslav Kučera’s name as a cover (Kučera also worked as the cinematographer for Daisies). She would continue producing work until her death in 2006.

Still, even if Chytilová had shot nothing else, Daisies would guarantee a place for her name in the film history books. It’s a bold, singular work that’s bursting at the seams with life. If you haven’t seen it yet, make it a point to pluck this flower the next time you come across it.

Daisies is screening this Sunday at 3:30PM at FilmBar as part of a Members-Only screening. If you haven’t got a Membership yet, there’s no time like the present. Don’t miss a chance to see this anarchic milestone on the big screen.

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