2018 Film Essays

Vague Visages Is FilmStruck: Natalia Winkelman on Věra Chytilová’s ‘Daisies’

The opening titles of Daisies, Věra Chytilová’s Czech New Wave allegorical reverie, overlay a jarring juxtaposition of images: bomb explosions and grinding machinery gears. The sound of hardware carries over as the picture cuts to two flower children sprawled against a fence in floral bikinis. Stony-faced and staring into the camera, the women make awkward, robotic gestures accompanied by synchronized mechanical sounds — Mickey Mousing as deadpan cyborgs. Viewers soon learn that the duo, who may or may not be real sisters, go by the names Marie I and Marie II. Inviting a voyeuristic gaze, the Maries are pleasure givers and receivers, indulging throughout the film in an excess of food, drink and luxury while the audience revels in the lovely and leisure-filled mise-en-scène. The Maries, and Daisies itself, are quintessential fruits of the Czech New Wave, deconstructing social hierarchies while embodying the free-flowing, iconoclastic ethos that roused and buoyed 1960s Czechoslovak cinema.

The Maries’ Mickey Mousing introduction establishes a world built on illusion, based on a disparate plane that would sooner pivot around daisies than detonations. But the moment also serves a political function: the sisters’ mimicry of the gear mechanism translates as a lack of agency over their own bodies, as if they were automatons steered by a remote device. “I can’t even do this,” Marie I says. “So what can we do?” Marie II asks. “We can’t do anything.” It’s a matter-of-fact exchange, but beneath the banter simmers a sense of repression or subjection to some reigning outside mechanism. “I look like a virgin, don’t I? I am a virgin!” Marie II exclaims later, followed shortly after by Marie I’s famous charge: “Everything’s going bad in this world.” There is a superficial frivolity to the women’s dialogue, but allusions to gender codes and political affairs bubble just beneath the surface.

Upon planting the seeds of ideology, Chytilová proceeds to subvert conventional power hierarchies and elevate Marie I and II within their fictive society. The women become hyper-symbols of self-sovereignty, unrestrained and unabashed. When the sisters mistakenly enter a cabaret nightclub via the stage curtain, they bask in the spotlight for several moments before being promptly escorted offstage by a waiter as the flapper show begins. But the Maries don’t need a stage to enact their own performance; they waltz about the club in giddy glee, stealing patrons’ hats and dancing on tables. When their wildness finally provokes their forcible removal from the club, the sisters squirm in and out of the attendant’s grasp, hedonistic and disruptive even while being (literally) strong-armed by authority. The whole production is a performative exercise in adventure-seeking and blithe disregard for propriety.

The Maries’ mastery over the audience is no less intense. Extravagance fills every frame, from exorbitant amounts of food and drink, to intricate butterfly display cases, to multicolored streamers and flower crowns. Chytilová’s radiant display is seductive, and deliberately so; through the beguiling images she’s quietly appealing to our intrusive gaze. It’s a flirtatious tactic, akin to the way the sisters lure and taunt their innumerable suitors. Of course, there’s also a sexual component to the appeal: the Maries’ nakedness, suggestive posing and handling of genitalia-shaped objects introduce an erotic lens by which viewers can access and consume their performance.

In one titillating scene, Marie II pays visit to a particularly obsequious suitor who also happens to be a butterfly collector. Teasingly, she undresses and then quickly dresses again as he pleads at her feet. Finally, she disrobes entirely and reveals herself to him, her body concealed only by plaques of butterflies she precariously presses over her breasts and crotch. As the suitor exclaims, “now I know what love is!” the screen flashes with frenzied, scrolling images of butterflies, imitating and fueling the suitor’s (and audience’s) quickened pulse and feverish thrill. Marie, unruffled, giggles at the collector as he spews words of adoration and simultaneously struggles to rescue his toppling butterfly collection. The scene ends as Marie answers his declaration of “I might be in love with you,” with “have you got any food? A bit of jam at least?” The question is at once flirty and dismissive — on the one hand, her request for jam (that sticky, fruity fare) connotes a request for him to fulfill her own sexual craving; on the other, she’s essentially snubbing him. No response to a doting suitor is more merciless than apathy.

But Chytilová saves the most overt example of subversion for later: in a climactic moment of visual symbolism, the sisters lounge in bed using scissors to slice food and paper and, ultimately, their own bodies. At the beginning of the scene, a telephone lies off its hook beside the women in bed. Through the receiver, one may discern a faint voice; it’s the besotted butterfly enthusiast. “Life without you is torture,” he coos, as Marie II carves up a sausage and shoves a large chunk into her mouth. “Now I know what love is,” he repeats, as the sisters slice and devour a hard-boiled egg before Marie II, still ignoring the suitor, asks Marie I for “another piece of meat.” Throughout the sequence, the camera dollies in close-up between the sisters’ sprawled bodies and around their hors d’oeuvres and cut up crafts. In this way, the camera movement, editing and suitor’s murmuring echo those of a standard “bedroom” scene, but in place of genitalia, Chytilová presents sausages, bananas, eggs; in place of sex, glutinous consumption; in place of love, rhapsodic languor. The symbolism is purposeful in its hyperbole — an ecstatically anti-subtle reimagining of pillow talk.

And if copulation’s the game, here comes the climax: the Maries’ literal deconstruction of their own bodies in a collage editing romp. With snips of their scissors, the sisters dice one another into pieces: limbs from torsos, heads and necks from chests. The body parts move freely about the room in a kind of rigid, disjointed dance — head turning here, arm waving there — compelling viewers to examine each piece as a discrete object. Restless and insatiable, the women have sacrificed their own bodies to their slicing game, rendering each piece a votive offering, a broken mechanical gadget, “another piece of meat.” For audiences, the whole weird performance results in a novel perception of the female figure, beheld and deciphered with a sense of Brechtian detachment.

Carved up into parts, the women crystallize for viewers two core phenomena: first, the audience’s own tendency towards an indulgent, objectifying gaze; and second, the lack of human psyche within the sisters. Just as their image was so easily dismantled into parts, so may their spirit be easily deconstructed into allegory. And what do we find upon this deconstruction? After Daisies was completed in 1966, Soviet authorities banned the film from release for promiscuous content. Rumblings of liberalization weren’t far off — Prague Spring began two years later. But until then, underlying Daisies’ chimerical world is the bohemian ideal of deliverance — from modesty, from decorum, from routine, from reality itself.

Watch ‘Daisies’ at FilmStruck.

Natalia Winkelman (@nataliawinke) is a film and culture writer based in Brooklyn. You can find her work at www.nataliawinkelman.com.