Critic J. Hoberman has written of the Czech film Daisies, “The most drolly anarchic cine-provocation to bloom during Prague Spring, Vera Chytilová’s 1966 masterpiece looks better every year — it’s amazing that this feminist Duck Soup is not yet regarded as classic.”
I couldn’t agree more. The marvel of Daisies is that it stands as both a definitive ‘60s film and yet somehow still seems too new for the 21st century.
As with another key entry in the Czech New Wave canon, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (also highly recommended), a viewer lucky enough to be discovering Daisies for the first time might be incredulous to learn that the film was the product of a Communist Eastern Bloc country. It’s as if a band of beatnik visionaries somehow, for just a short while, seized control of state-controlled filmmaking and this is the gleefully subversive result. Visionary-in-chief in this case would be director Chytilová, who described Daisies as “a philosophical documentary in the form of a farce.”
The movie opens on two sunbathing 17-year-old girls, Marie I and Marie II (Jitka Cerhová and Ivana Karbanová, both nonprofessional actresses), who whimsically decide that since the world is “spoiled,” they too should be “spoiled.” Meaning, that since the society around them is corrupt and lacking in values, they’re under no obligation to act morally.
In a series of beautifully photographed, nonlinear vignettes, Marie and Marie proceed to blithely demolish any sense of bourgeois propriety, traditional gender roles and just plain order in their lives. They ignore their pleading suitors and instead tease and seduce a series of much older married men, cadging extravagant meals out of their marks before sending them packing on their commuter trains. They wreak slapstick havoc in a nightclub and muse about philosophy while lounging around in a bedroom that’s literally wall-to-wall newspapers and magazine ads.
(The most notable decorative touch in the bedroom, however, is the ribbons hanging from the ceiling that are going up in flames — the ashes flutter to the ground around the girls. The shots in this scene are so striking, partly because the actresses appear to be at risk, that when you see the movie in a theatre you can sense the audience stirring, paying closer attention.)
In the end Marie and Marie sneak into a government ministry building and discover a dining room where an obscenely lavish banquet has been laid out. Before any officials arrive, they start sampling the dishes — before tearing into the most subversive food fight ever filmed.
This proves to be their downfall. They undergo ideological reeducation and promise to be good girls from now on. Their brainwashing is imaginatively conveyed through their new costumes, exoskeletons made up of newspapers blaring government propaganda (not the first image in the film to evoke Dada). But the girls’ newfound passivity proves disastrous. The roof caves in, literally and figuratively, and an atomic bomb goes off. This is all gorgeous to look at, and much of it is scored to ragtime, plus the occasional burst of Mahler and Wagner.
This being a film that thumbs its nose at patriarchal authority, Daisies refuses to explain itself. The filmmakers demand that the viewer construct his or her own meaning. (Note the gender-specific pronouns — women reportedly find the film much funnier than men do. Though in this era of women behaving badly in Hollywood comedies, maybe male viewers will now be more receptive to the Maries’ antics.) Not only is the narrative, if that’s the word, intentionally ambiguous, seeming to both affirm and critique the two Maries’ apolitical nihilism, but form follows function in that director Chytilová and her gifted team opt for continual experimentation, with color filters, camera speed, editing, you name it. One minute the movie is a transfixing ‘60s mod spectacle, the next it harks back to a nickelodeon featurette from 50 years earlier. At times it’s like the director and actors gathered on the set and decided to stage a new Pop Art happening every day.
The Czechoslovak government allowed Daisies a brief run in theatres before banning it. This is a rare instance where the censors’ actions, while contemptible, are understandable. As enigmatic as the movie can be on a scene-by-scene level, there’s no mistaking the disrespect for authority here. Some apparatchik in some ministry office understood that nothing is as subversive as laughter, simple mockery. The authorities were not amused — but you will be.