Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Daisies-Sedmikrásky (1966)

As videogames, god-awful Michael Bay films, Pixar CG cartoons, and other purely digital works rise to the forefront of art and entertainment, mechanical cinema can now be safely compartmentalized in the 20th Century. (Sorry analog video, you're relegated to a mere transitional phase.) Invented at the very tail end of the 1800s, early cinema developed in separate, parallel trajectories within the era's two biggest players: the United States and the Soviet Union. While Kentucky born D.W. Griffith invented the concept of intercutting simultaneous action for extra excitement in his embarrassingly racist epic, Birth of a Nation, the reds were developing more formalist techniques. Instead of the clear spatial and temporal relationships between objects on the screen found in commercial Western cinema, Russian filmmakers, led by Sergei Eisenstein, began developing what is known as Soviet montage (not to be confused with the Rocky montage), a system where meaning is created through editing and juxtaposition rather than simply spread across a single, lengthy wide shot.
One of the central theses of Soviet montage is that novel cinematic denotation can be created with disparate elements through dialectic synthesis. Essentially this means that complex or unstated concepts can be portrayed through the 'conflict' of two otherwise unrelated shots edited together. For instance, a shot of a skinny frowning dude spliced with a shot of a steaming, yummy looking potato can represent the idea of hunger. This theory of artistic creation through ideas "butting heads" would go on to be a recurring theme in Communist art, but as the regimes grew increasingly oppressive and hostile to artists, the conflicts were increasingly between filmmaker and censor, rather than on the screen itself.As the best (and probably singular) feminist counterculture film from 1966 Eastern Europe, Věra Chytilová's Daisies (aka Sedmikrásky) is a perfect example of unique art springing from the conflict between the liberal ideas of a headstrong iconoclast and the repressive censorship of the government ostensibly footing the bill. At the time, Czechoslovakia was a semi-independent, soon to be invaded satellite of the USSR, and its cinematic milieu generally reflected this. The communists, eager to be culturally competitive with the west and with a rich, established film history, provided funding to their filmmaking institutions. The artists working within responded by vigorously criticizing the Soviet puppets taking control of the country.Instead of the bland propaganda-lite of Socialist realism, Daisies turns 180 degrees in the opposite direction and blasts off at warp speed. Heavily influenced by the French New Wave, as well as Luis Buñuel and the surrealists, it not only forgoes the airless party line, but all semblance of traditional narrative structure. Instead of a point A to point B storyline, the film travels in an outward spiraling stream of consciousness, repeating its favored themes against backgrounds of varying scale and color.
Even the very first celluloid frame comes out of left field. Instead of the expected bikini clad ladies, the opening credits occur against a juxtoposition of World War II stock footage and a strange, damp contraption of gears and levers. (Gears of War?) A few moments later, the bikinis arrive with two of the most attractive women in the history of Eastern Europe inside. (Faint praise, I know, but they are still quite hot.) Marie I and Marie II, whom we will be referring to as Blonde and Brunette for the sake of clarity (they keep changing their pseudonyms throughout the picture), are relaxing on the boardwalk. They act and converse in a robotic fashion, with obnoxious foley effects awkwardly grafted on. The discussion revolves around how the world around them is going rotten, so they resolve to 'go bad' along with it.
A playful slap transports them to a pastoral field where they dance around in short dresses and vast amounts of eyeliner. One girl steals an apple and her friend chases her into an apartment wallpapered in sketches of wildflowers. They discuss what to do next, then reappear at the beach. The blonde tosses her virginal daisy garland into a lake and, after a quick shot of a floating fat guy, the brunette ends up on a dinner date with an older looking aristocratic type. Her cohort immediately shows up and attaches herself to the evening, lamprey style. Much to the gentleman's chagrin, she sets about being as charmingly uncouth as possible. She stuffs her face, titters endlessly, and generally makes him squirm. (Much to the brunette's barely disguised amusement.) As the dinner soldiers onward through a spectrum of different tints and washes, the man begins to show signs of relaxing.
Suddenly the brunette must catch a train. She drags the courter on board, then somehow materializes on the tracks outside as it speeds off to Bohemia in a psychedelic rainbow. They discuss what to do next, and the inevitable wackiness ensues. This is essentially the entirety of the film's plot; it continues onward and evolves quite a bit, but there is never a story-line beyond the two girls philosophizing, making mischief, and taking rubes out to dinner before packing them on the crazy train.
This is not to say that the film is in any way dull or listless. The very next scene, chronologically, is a madcap highlight, in which the heroines sneak their way into a booth at a posh club and proceed to upstage the '30s-style dancers doing the Charleston. They whisper and giggle, gleefully bounce up and down, (literally) climb up the walls, and play jokes on the wait staff. After ordering a pair of big bottles of Pilsner Urquell, the flagship Czech beer which you can go find at your liquor store right now (with practically the same label even), they quickly produce their own bottles, then act confused and innocent when the waiter returns with their order. Naturally, they demand he provide bottle opening services, then proceed to get obnoxiously drunk.
This may not sound like much when converted to text, but the rapid-fire montage editing and giddy soundtrack are the main attractions. Daisies is far more concerned with what is happening shot to shot than in going from plot point A to plot point B. The ending is abrupt and theoretically a bit of a downer, and while the film does build to the conclusion somewhat, it does so sans any solid narrative reasoning. Scenes pile on top of one another rather than flow together. The transitions are sudden and jarring; once a vignette is about to play itself out, there is an immediate cut to either a new location (usually shot on a different film stock), a montage of loosely connected imagery, or a rapid, abstract jumble.
Combining quick editing, handmade film elements, and the collage-like nature of the girls' home base/apartment, these pseudo-animated sequences are found both between scenes and within them, breaking up the predictability of the scene-transition-scene pattern. The line blurs even more later in the film, when the girls become cross with each other and begin slicing through each other, as well as the fabric of space and time with scissors.
Drawings of flowers, shots of butterfly collections, and jumbled newsprint sprint across the screen, accompanied by sudden bursts of rushing locomotive noise. The butterfly segment in particular has strong echoes of Stan Brakhage's Mothlight, though it's unlikely the director would have seen it.
If the viewer can contend with its unorthodox, experimental structure, Daisies is an incredibly dense film, thematically. There are probably hundreds of different interpretations to be found within, and I could (if I weren't so lazy) spend endless paragraphs unpacking meaning from the cluttered mise-en-scène. It's a lighthearted feminist manifesto, a parable of Bohemian decadence, and a biting critique of the Communist leadership. It's even a bit of an audience rorschach test; some will immediately put it on their favorite films list and others will be left scratching their heads.
Much praise should be heaped upon the obscure actresses who carry the film along. Aside from their above discussed attractiveness, they manage to prove themselves more than adequate thespians given the roughly sketched nature of their characters (and the film itself). The brunette seems to be the more sensible of the two, taking point on their dates/hornswagglings with older men, and occasionally scolding her friend's impulsiveness. In one of the film's very few acknowledgments of the "real world," she comes home to their ticking electricity meter and briefly laments its consequences. The blonde, by contrast, is the more puckish of the pair; not content with teasing older gentleman, she breezes in and out of relationships with guys her age, leaving them to pitifully pine away.
One victim of her charms is left hanging on the phone, pouring his heart out, while the girls slice up pickles and sausages with a pair of mean looking scissors. In this way, the film is well aware of a darker side to feminism. While the dinner scenes revel in their "stick it to the man" girl-power, the mopey boyfriend is clearly not a member of the patriarchal elite. Instead of balancing the scales of power, her femininity has tilted it completely in her favor. Not that the girls spend too much energy feeling remorseful; they've determined to 'go bad' and nothing can divert their course. They even steal jukebox money from the creepy bathroom lady who sings and makes coffee while they play dress up.
One of Daisies' most prominent motifs is food. Nearly every segment revolves around eating or drinking, starting with the blonde stealing an apple from the idyllic tree they prance around and ending with a knock-down, drag-out, two girl food fight in a massive banquet hall. They have an existential discussion in a milk bath, steal ears of corn from a country village, and, as mentioned, do scary things to various phallic foodstuffs.
AAHH! Castration Anxiety!

Because of the ladies' gastronomic obsessions, their apartment is filled with spoiled milk, rotting fruit, and various moldering leftovers. This elegantly dovetails with the film's theme of 'going bad,' as much of the dialog can be applied to both their physical and philosophical surroundings. It also leads to my personal favorite line: "How volatile life is." Surely that was a loaded sentiment in a country only two years away from a full on Soviet invasion.

As a side note, check out Jan Svankmajer's Little Otik, another Czech film similarly obsessed with food and eating, even if it is more disgusted than enamored with the process. Quick, someone find me a third Czech food film so I can declare it a trend.
By the end of Daisies, even the dimmest bulbs in the audience should have picked up on the fact that the girls love to eat, so when they ride a dumbwaiter into a vast banquet hall all prepared for a resplendent feast, there is a palpable anticipation of the incoming climactic mischief. Shit is about to go down. Hands will be shoved into mushy treats, booze will be consumed in vast quantities, and high heels will trod across all manner of delicately prepared pastries.
I have no idea what most of this crap is, but it probably tastes good.

After the good times have passed, the girls finally realize the error of their ways and, now clad in suits of old newspaper, attempt to stitch the feast back together. Then a chandelier falls on them. The End.

The Communist authorities were having none of this. With the official explanation that the film showed too much "wasting of food" they declared the film ineligible for release and wrote various official resolutions personally condemning Chytilová and other members of the Czech avant-garde. It would be many years before the film showed theatrically, and if it had never been noticed by Western festivals, Daisies may have remained buried forever. The men in charge wanted films that reflected state ideology: straightforward tales of the proletariat. Abstract cinema was a slap in the establishment's face, and it came down hard on those who tested it. Fortunately, the filmmakers pushed back, and much like their Russian counterparts, managed to create art that not only survived censorship, but arguably thrived in its grip.
Unlike most of the films discussed on this website, Daisies is legitimately good cinema, (Whatever that means) and outside of the usual "art films may not be your cup of tea" qualifications, I am hard pressed to think of an unkind word for it. No one is going to mistake it for a modern film, but it is a million times less dated than far younger films. Even the artifacts of its low budget only seem to add a gritty charm.
The best thing I can come up with for criticism is that the film has a severe shortage of tits. I know that sounds more than a little misogynistic, but for a film about female sexuality (among other things) it kept feeling like they were just around the corner. Perhaps the girls could have ran naked through a meat packing plant or done a strip tease for parliament. Oh well, it's probably to much to ask for a film that was censored because of a food fight. (Animal House would make those dudes' heads explode)

On a personal note, I once (while quite intoxicated) decided that I wanted to watch a movie, but absolutely, positively did not want to see any dudes. Unfortunately, The Descent was still a few years away, so I ended up watching music videos. While Daisies isn't a perfect transgender Mirror of John Carpenter's The Thing, (it's far from dude free) I think it would have scratched that particular drug addled itch.


  1. i thought when "brunette' returned to the apartment, the gas was on--not an electric meter. i was under the impression that the other marie (the blond) was attempting to gas herself but left the window open.

    also, a huge fuck you to you regarding what you said about a "shortage of tits." it's a feminist film, you oversexed western prick.

  2. "i thought when "brunette' returned to the apartment, the gas was on--not an electric meter. i was under the impression that the other marie (the blond) was attempting to gas herself but left the window open."*

    *that was my friend's interpretation. it does look like a suicide scene, on one hand however.

  3. Actually that seems like a pretty spot on interpretation of that scene. Perhaps an alternate translation would have made it more clear. (There were plenty of moments in the film that I wondered if I was missing something due to the translation.) If it is a suicide attempt, it certainly ads some extra layers to the film as a whole.

    As far as tits go, I'd rather not live in a world where feminist art must remain completely chaste in order to avoid the male gaze. It's more fun to subvert said gaze than to avoid it completely, anyway.

    Also, I'm totally making "oversexed western prick" my new motto/tagline/t-shirt slogan.

  4. this is a good review i am doing a thematic and formal motif including the relationship of content and story essay on this particular film and this review is very well written and put across i like the fact that the oversexed western prick comment was backfired completely made me chuckle.

    thank you for this review it helped a lot.

  5. I loathe Feminists, they are such blowhards and huge hypocrites. Feminism was my major in college. It is like any other ism and wrought with contradictions. To stand behind it 100% is ignorant. I'm female btw....