Vera Chytilová’s incredible burst of cinematic rebellion, DAISIES (1966), deserves far more attention. As shocking and subversive as any film ever made, it arose from the creative and cultural explosion known as the Czech New Wave (Nova Vina) movement, a reaction to the oppressive Communist regime then in place. The movement flourished for a few short years before the Soviet invasion of 1968 brought new and devastating meaning to the word “oppressive.” Tied to this historical moment, linked after the fact to some nebulous concept of “feminism,” soaring gloriously above even the most freewheeling fantasies of French New Wave pathfinders Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, DAISIES can also be seen as a decadent doppelganger to that other groundbreaking work of 1960s female-centric cinema, Ingmar Bergman’s PERSONA (also 1966), but more accurately, it is kin to Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali’s monumental short surrealist shocker, UN CHIEN ANDALOU (1928), thwarting expectations at every turn and standing triumphantly as a one-of-a-kind work of art.
Shunning any sort of pedantic, message-heavy mood, DAISIES is spectacularly life-affirming, seething with playful antagonism and tapping into the voyeuristic and revolutionary thrill of defying social norms, an essential element in the success of movies from the Marx Brothers to the Blues Brothers. As with those examples, the on-screen chemistry of the “stars,” in this case the non-professional actresses Jitka Cerhová and Ivana Karbanová, is key to the endeavor’s appeal. We are fascinated, we are transfixed, we cannot take our eyes from the screen for fear of missing the next outrageous act, the next jarring non sequitur.
It is the presence of these two magnetic characters that brings to mind Bergman’s PERSONA, along with the question of whether we are watching the story of one woman or two, (or if what we are watching is even a story at all). Both films also call attention to the artificiality of the medium itself, but otherwise they could not be further from each other. Where Bergman’s masterpiece is cerebral and analytic, investigating various psychic states, Chytilová’s is defiantly celebratory and sensual, investigating nothing but the mischievous violation of convention. Here, the film is less about the filmmaker as architect than it is about the beauty, energy and chaos of rebellion.
The ostensible premise of DAISIES is that, according to our mysterious protagonists (designated Marie I and Marie II, though called by other names at various times) the world has gone bad and they have decided to follow suit. What follows is a tenuously connected series of vignettes detailing the pair’s adventures. Like Buñuel and Dali before her, Chytilová knows there is no reason for images to connect logically to one another, and often in DAISIES they don’t. The director coyly strings together the bare bones of a narrative, but has no qualms about punching it with holes or abruptly changing locations and film styles while conversations and action continue uninterrupted. Every step of the way she challenges the viewer with an array of techniques: various color filters, scenes in stark black and white or swimming in sumptuous color, sequences of stop-motion or cut-and-paste collage; the subjects alluringly close or distanced by rigid shot composition, their dialogue proceeding naturally or sounding mechanically artificial. The inventive soundtrack contributes to the lack of equilibrium, including unexplained or exaggerated sound effects, cartoon noises, and all manner of incongruous musical accompaniment.
In all this, Chytilová far surpasses the experiments of Truffaut and Godard, who in the late 1950s began making movies infused with a new and exhilarating energy. Free from the shackles of any sort of structure, DAISIES makes their efforts look positively leaden by comparison. Every scene contains the breathtaking thrill of the unexpected, as when the two women are simply lounging in their room and Marie I picks up a pair of long, sharp scissors.
The two Maries are in almost constant motion, their actions deliriously unpredictable. Destroying their surroundings, constructing new costumes for themselves and each other, forever altering their appearance and frustrating the expectations of the ordinary folk that want ordinary and predictable responses from them, they are the tranquil twin engines of chaos. The extended final segment is one of the most remarkable and memorable ever committed to celluloid, as the ever-curious pair sneak into a posh penthouse dining room laid with a sumptuous banquet. In the absence of any other people, our heroes proceed to systematically defile everything in sight, eventually turning on each other in a gleeful orgy of gluttony and destruction. A dreamy epilogue has the two whispering remorsefully in the dark, wrapped in newspapers, trying absurdly to repair the damage they’ve done and repeating to each other the banal mantra that their hard work will bring them happiness. A final mockery, followed by a closing insult to those who would dare criticize the film, and it is over, bookended by the images of explosions and warfare with which it began, a reminder of the ever-present backdrop of truly monstrous crimes in the world, the things really worthy of our scorn, criticism and condemnation. A bitter pill, and a sobering, emphatic exclamation point to a work of deliciously ecstatic freedom.