When Vera Chytilová completed her anarchic masterpiece DAISIES in 1966 it was banned from exhibition by the Czechoslovakian board of censors. They accused it of “depicting the wanton,” and therefore served as a danger to the country’s communist society. Chytilová was forbidden from making another film until 1975.
The first time I watched DAISIES in college when I was gorging myself on surrealist cinema,the government reaction seemed like overkill. The film struck me as a colorful romp celebrating youth and whimsy, perhaps with some playful jabs at high society. I didn’t see why that needed to be stomped out. But by revisiting the film, the politics became clear. DAISIES is as much a celebration of freedom as it is a vicious takedown of the suffocating, mechanized Czech society that set out to suppress such freedom.
It’s not that Chytilová lectures the audience, but rather the critique is built into the film’s structure. This desire for liberation is as ingrained in the editing and sound design as it is in the characters. Drab grayscale images of high society men dining in restaurants are contrasted with the vibrant flare of our heroines, Marie I (Jitka Cerhová) and Marie II (Ivana Karbanová). Images of nature are cut against close-ups of cold machinery.
From the opening scene we are greeted by Marie I and Marie II sitting lifelessly in front of a wooden fence. They move their bodies one limb at a time, like robots, or perhaps dolls, and each joint when bent creaks like a rusty hinge. They speak in monotone, bemoaning their boring existence, until it dawns on one of them that they should simply do what they want. “We’ll be spoiled!” Marie II declares. And as she lifts her arm to slap Marie I, the creaking is gone. The sound of her hand smacking against Marie I’s face is replaced by a triumphant cymbal crash. Color comes to the film and they appear in a bed of daisies. Through the mere act of deciding to rebel they have completely freed themselves from the constraints of society.
Chytilová, along with editor Miroslav Hájek, creates a purely cinematic form of freedom. Traditional cinematography is done away with completely. Color filters change mid-scene, limbs float freely in the air, stock footage of bombs and collapsing buildings are intercut with gleeful laughter. Where Jean-Luc Godard shattered cinematic convention in 1960 when he made BREATHLESS, Chytilová grinds the rubble he left behind into dust.
Godard once claimed “All film is political.” This statement has led to numerous critiques and think pieces analyzing the nuances of storytelling, but Godard’s declaration means something more. The very act of filmmaking is political. And so it’s no wonder the Czechoslovakian government feared DAISIES; there is not an image in this film that isn’t an assault on all of Eastern European culture. Patriarchy is ridiculed, industrialization is scorned, and even table manners are shredded with a pair of scissors. All this leads up to the film’s lawless climax of gluttony and chaos as the Maries set upon a feast laid out for members of the Czech elite. Silverware is unnecessary; they eat with their hands.
But this joy cannot last. Society will always find a way of suppressing dissent. The indelible image of the girls tied up in barbed wire and state newspapers speaks for itself. The Soviet government could never allow such liberty to exist.
DAISIES finally saw a release two years later during the Prague Spring. Beginning in January of 1968, De-Stalinization led to a liberal movement within the Czech government loosened the censorship and many artistic works, which had formerly been banned, were allowed to be released. For the first time, DAISIES reached an audience. Chytilová was allowed to make a new film, FRUIT OF PARADISE, which would premiere at Cannes in 1970. But the liberation lasted a mere eight months. In August 1968, the Warsaw Pact invaded the country and restored “order.” Many artists, including director Miloš Forman, fled. Chytilová stayed and struggled with state censorship for decades.
Today, DAISIES is by far her most renowned feature, and it’s easy to see why. For as biting and daring as it is, it’s also a pleasure. Few films are able to fuse surrealism with as much raw energy, passion, and humor as DAISIES does (perhaps Obayashi’s HAUSU is its strongest rival). A cinematic triumph, and one of the defining works of the Czech New Wave.