By Geo Ong
The 1960s saw, among many other things, the development and emergence of the Czechoslovak New Wave film movement in the country known then as Czechoslovakia. The films and filmmakers to come out of this artistic movement were born out of a collective discontent in regards to the Communist regime that held power over the country since 1948. The resulting films and the messages therein were rife with socio-political commentary that were seen by government officials as subversive, immoral, and dangerous.
Just one prime example is Vera Chytilová’s 1966 film Daisies, which had been accused of ‘depicting the wanton’ by Czech authorities and subsequently banned by the government. Daisies and the rest of Chytilová’s work was considered so dangerous that the filmmaker herself was exiled, forbidden to work in her own country until 1975.
Forty-six years later, Daisies currently enjoys a Criterion Collection DVD release as well as occasional arthouse screenings in cinema-centric cities. Not only is it now considered one of the most important films to come out of the Czechoslovak New Wave, but its brash campaign against patriarchy still proves relevant today.
Daisies appears to be equal parts Emma Goldman, Luis Buñuel, Maya Deren, Charlie Chaplin, and Stan Brakhage. Its absurdist treatment of very real socio-political atrocities makes the film at once not of this world and of this world entirely; this paradox of being both in your face and at arm’s length is perhaps what makes Daisies both effective and lasting.
Daisies is unstructured from a narrative standpoint, perhaps ‘loosely-structured’ at most. Its narrative core features two young women who decide to be and act like everything they ‘aren’t supposed to be.’ They cause trouble in every capable dimension – consuming gluttonous amounts of food and drink, causing scenes, destroying property, and using their youth and beauty to play pranks on rich men – and they have a blast doing it. If the world that contains them isn’t free, then these two women will break free by acting free.
The narrative core of Daisies is spliced sporadically by the experimental filmmaking techniques of director Chytilova. Throughout the film, and very much like her protagonists, she tries everything to muck up what a film is traditionally regarded as being. This includes using garishly bright colour lenses, manipulating the physical film the way Brakhage did in his work, and incorporating shocking imagery and sound when the viewer least expects it. While it isn’t always apparent if and how these experiences relate to the narrative, it absolutely contributes to what the film is as a whole.
After the climactic scene where the two girls completely destroy a formal dinner prepared for seemingly important people, the film and its messages come together beautifully when the two girls decide to clean up the mess they’ve created. In their cheeky efforts to put everything back nicely the way they were, from gathering together broken china to re-moulding partially masticated food dishes, it’s plain to see that the effort is pointless. The damage has been done.
At the end of the closing credits, a message reads: This film is dedicated to all those who get upset only over a stomped-upon bed of lettuce. It is perhaps both an afterthought and a forethought. Daisies is surely the stomped-upon bed of lettuce, but perhaps Chytilova is also alluding to the fact that there will be many more beds of lettuce to be stomped upon in the future, and then things won’t be as pretty as we want them to be anymore.