Daises 1966 poster (Unknown Artist)

Věra Chytilová’s Daisies came out in 1966, the same year that The Velvet Underground recorded their debut album. Each was seen as absolutely radical on their release.

Nowadays The Velvet Underground & Nico is much revered, a staple of Greatest Ever Albums lists and the subject of near unanimous critical accolades. Daisies? Well, even all these years later the jury is still out on it. For the British Film Institute it’s ‘undeniably a masterpiece’ while Time Out London moaned: ‘As an allegory it lacks any resonance, as a movie it stinks.’

Dedicated to those who ‘get upset only over a stomped-upon bed of lettuce’, it’s certainly a film that once seen will never be forgotten.

From its opening credits featuring footage of devastation such as aerial bombardments and collapsing buildings juxtaposed with images of some metal shifting gears in motion to the soundtrack of stop/start drums accompanied by a bizarre bugle call, Daisies demands attention.

Daisies_-_Tree__of_Knowledge

This is dizzying stuff, a dazzling and frenetic film that makes even an early Jean-Luc Godard French New Wave movie like Un Femme Est Une Femme look almost conservative. Sedmikrásky, to give it its Czech name, comes over like some Dada performance from the Cabaret Voltaire in 1916 crossed with a drug fuelled psychedelic happening.

Yeah, I feel the director could have been reined in at times and found the frequent changes of colour a little tiresome – some scenes were shot in luscious colour, other scenes in black and white, others were tinted various colours by a number of filters. Almost as if the director wanted to use every single camera effect she had at her disposal for the sake of it. Sometimes arbitrarily within the same scene.

Daisies_-_Red_Filter

Maybe this is to parallel the infantile way the two leads behave throughout the film. Certainly if they were given access to a camera, this might well resemble the kind of movie they might make.

By any standards, though, it’s a remarkable work and even more remarkable when you consider the backdrop to its making. Okay, I’m no expert in Eastern European history, but here’s a little background.

After being occupied by the Nazis, Czechoslovakia had Communism foisted upon it in the wake of WWII. Inevitably, the film industry suffered through censorship. Even though the authorities did like the idea of their films being feted internationally (and the subsequent hard currency this would bring into the country), they couldn’t stomach anything that might be seen as critical of the regime.

The Nová Vlna (New Wave) directors were typically far from pro-Communist but as Geoffrey Nowell-Smith put it in his book Making Waves: ‘Rarely were films made which were a deliberate provocation to the authorities, but they gave offence none the less.’ Even their non-confrontational stance could prove controversial. ‘Film-makers were trying to be apolitical in a situation when being apolitical was not an option.’

Daisies, though, did obviously set out to be confrontational. As Chytilová explained in Journey,Jasmina Blažević’s documentary portrait of her: ‘I was daring enough to want absolute freedom, even if it was a mistake.’

A salvo against the dogmatic brand of bureaucratic government imposed on her country, Daisies tells the story (of sorts) of two girls, Marie I and Marie 2, played by non-professional actors Jitka Cerhová (brunette) and Ivana Karbanová (strawberry blonde with floral headband & also seen in the right hand side of this blog’s header). Without any real discussion, the girls conclude the world is bad and, therefore, they should be bad themselves. Equally coquettish and irritating, the Marie characters – who assume many different names throughout – are given no depth and could even be interchangeable.

Daisies_-_Marching

The girls behave badly. They lead older men on then abandon them once meals have been paid for. They visit a cabaret bar where a vaudeville act is performing and steal alcoholic drinks from everyone around them and cause havoc before being thrown out by the manager. They steal from a woman who is shown to be friendly towards them. Most famously, they stumble into a banquet hall where a mammoth array of delicacies has been laid out on platters and plates, presumably for a gathering of bigwig party dignitaries.

The Maries mush up the food and devour it with their hands. With the gargantuan appetites they display throughout the film it’s a wonder they’re not absolutely obese. They slug back wine and glug Johnny Walker Red label. Plates are broken. Bottles are smashed. They parade over the tables, stepping directly on to the feast – ruining more than just a stomped-upon bed of lettuce with every step.

Daisies ends with a spectacular food fight.

Daisies_-_Banquet

The Communist authorities were never going to approve of content like this, but the climax somehow riled them more than any other aspect of the film. Labelled as ‘depicting the wanton’, this ensured that it would earn a ban.

Jitka Cerhová, interviewed in French newspaper Libération years later, recalled: ‘You can’t imagine how these scenes, where we threw down the table and the platters of a sumptuous banquet, were shocking in a country where people waited on line for hours in front of grocery stores.’

Sadly, Chytilová struggled to find any approved work as a director in her homeland for years. At one point in the mid-1970s, the woman dubbed the ‘First Lady of Czech Cinema’ even resorted to writing to then President Gustav Husak, begging for her right to direct. She pledged her allegiance to ‘socialism’ and argued against criticisms of her work including Daisies, which she described it as a ‘morality play’, suggesting that her film should be interpreted in a completely different light – the bad behaviour of her two leads reflected the lives of apathetic young people when they’re ‘left to [their] own devices’. The two Maries and their ‘malacious pranks’ could be due to their lack of work and undeveloped political consciousness.

Yeah, right.

The letter worked. In 1977, she was allowed to direct The Apple Game, which I have yet to see and which isn’t currently available to buy in Britain.
Daisies, though, has just came out as a region free Blu-Ray from Second Run.

Extras include two separate audio commentaries (which I haven’t yet heard), a 20-page booklet, and Journey – the aforementioned documentary.

For anybody interested in the Czechoslovak New Wave, groundbreaking female directors or experimental cinema of the 1960s, this is something you’ll want to get your hands on.

* If you like Daisies then you might also like Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, which also displays a strong surrealist influence. The screenplay was adapted by director Jaromil Jireš, along with Ester Krumbachová, who also had a hand in writing Daisies. Oh, and the score is one of the magical you could ever hope to hear.

For more on Daisies: http://www.secondrundvd.com/release_daisiesBD.html

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