“If there’s something you don’t like, don’t keep to the rules – break them. I’m an enemy of stupidity and simple-mindedness in both men and women and I have rid my living space of these traits.”–Vera Chytilová in a 2000 interview with The Guardian
DIRECTED BY: Vera Chytilová
FEATURING: Ivana Karbanová, Jitka Cerhová, Jan Klusák
PLOT: Two doll-like young women in bikinis theorize that because the entire world is becoming spoiled, they will be spoiled too. They set off on a series of anarchic adventures, many of which involve them permitting old men to take them to expensive dinners. Their surreal, sexy excursions are interrupted by Dadaist collages and sudden changes of film stock, and climax in a slapstick pie fight.
- Although Daisies is frequently interpreted as a feminist statement, director Vera Chytilová denied that was her intent and preferred to describe the movie as “a philosophical documentary in the form of a farce.”
- In 1966 film composer Jan Klusák made his acting debut in two films: a small role as the butterfly-collecting beau in Daisies and in the major part of an absurd apparatchik in A Report on the Party and Guests.
- Writer Ester Krumbachová co-scripted the screenplays for both Daisies and Report and also designed the sets and costumes for Daisies.
- The Czechoslovakian censors banned Daisies in 1967 (at the same meeting in which they banned Jan Nemec’s overtly political A Report on the Party and Guests). Chytilová made one more feature in 1969, the equally surreal We Eat the Fruit of the Trees of Paradise, after which she was forbidden to make any more films for six years until she successfully appealed the government ban on her work.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Marie II (I think; the blond one with the circlet of wildflowers) modestly trying to hide her nudity behind her suitor’s butterfly cases is an image that’s so highly charged it graces every DVD cover. The picture perfectly encapsulates Daisies‘ knowingly naughty innocence.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Watching the bright colors and bratty joie de vivre of Marie I and II as they slash and burn their way through square society, cutting up phallic symbols and the film stock itself with scissors, it’s hard to believe that Daisies wasn’t produced under the influence of drugs. Made a year before and half a world away from San Francisco’s Summer of Love, this proto-flower power film nonetheless captures the anarchic spirit of Sixties psychedelia; it’s a relic from an alternate universe populated by sexy Czech hippy chicks with serious cases of the munchies. Alternately described as a feminist manifesto, a consumerist satire, and a Dadaist collage, it seems that no one—possibly including the director herself—is quite clear on what Daisies is supposed to be about. Does it matter? No, it doesn’t.
Trailer for the 2022 restoration of Daisies
COMMENTS: Imagine, for a moment, that you’re a censor in Communist Czechoslovakia in 1966, and you’re assigned the task of reviewing Daisies. The script was approved before production began, but something about the finished product looks… off. Weird. Subversive, dangerous in a way you can’t quite put your finger on. It seems oddly like something a long-haired Yankee running-dog capitalist might have dreamed up while listening to “Rubber Soul” and puffing on a doobie. The film features two beautiful young Czech girls remorselessly running mad, drinking, feasting, and taking advantage of men. It’s got random tinting, collages of wildflowers and butterflies, and experimental sequences in bright tie-dye colors scored to mock-patriotic music. There is no comprehensible plot. You’re supposed to be liberalizing censorship of the arts, but Daisies goes too far, in some way you can’t quite put your finger on. You know you’ll be drummed out of the party if you can’t come up with a reason to ban this surrealist atrocity. What do you do?
Compounding your problem is the fact that its director insists that the film is a satirical morality play, and the audience is expected to feel disgust towards the two comically decadent dolls who get their comeuppance at the end. The script makes clear the twin Maries are explicitly evil; deliberately “spoiled,” as they say. Several times in the story they stress that they are unemployed, indolent; they are a recognizable kind of Communist stock villain called the “parasite.” They live only to eat, giving nothing to society and draining its resources. Their idleness combined with their consumerist, capitalistic desires lead them to a lifestyle of scamming the establishment, consuming massive amounts of food at lavish spreads paid for by older men to whom they give nothing in return except for a one-way train ticket to parts unknown. They show no ambition greater than landing a bourgeois sugar daddy. After an hour of random leisure, they are stunned when they spy on a farmer watering his field; they literally can’t comprehend the value of a hard day’s work. They don’t understand why neither he nor the workers peddling to their jobs on their bicycles can see them, and they begin to question whether they are really happy being invisible parasites living outside of society. After childishly destroying a banquet in a final burst of immaturity, they end up cast into a lake, vainly trying to tread water, begging for forgiveness from society for their spoiled behavior. Now clad sensibly in newspapers and twine as opposed to the flowered frocks they favored in their childish days, they are allowed to return and clean up their mess to make amends for their parasitism. Perhaps, as the director claims, the film is intended as a pro-socialist indictment of indolent youth and an incitement to workerly virtue. Why then does Daisies feel so subversive?
If Daisies’ nods to socialist morality suggest you can’t ban it based on its counter-revolutionary politics, perhaps you can get it on obscenity charges. This is 1966, after all, and there’s a lot of fulsome female flesh on display here, even if it’s covered up by strategically placed butterfly display cases. True, there’s no actual sex, but that in itself presents a problem: the Maries are not only non-productive members of society, they’re also non-reproductive members of society. They have no use for men and are exclusively involved with each other. The girls dress up in nighties and wrestle, Marie II lightly canes Marie I on the derriere as she looks out a window, they hold hands and pet, and take baths together in milk. At one point, Marie I pokes Marie II lightly in her bare lower abdomen with a fork and says “I don’t see any other meat here.” Despite the fact that they’re only interested in hanging out together, they plow through a succession of men and delight in hinting of sexual adventures they have no intentions of embarking on. In the famous butterfly sequence, it’s Marie II who strips for her lepidopterist Lothario of her own accord. She then demurs “I don’t know what you’re talking about” when he protests his love for his demure nude girl, before asking “isn’t there some food around here?” Later, when he calls her on the phone to further declaim his passion, she and Marie I lie there listening in their underwear, giggling and slicing up various sausages, pickles and bananas that they happen to have lying around the flat with a pair of scissors.
If you’re a Czechoslovakian censor in 1966 chances are good you’re a male, and you might not want to hint at how uncomfortable that scene of the Maries cutting phallic fruit into tiny slices and feeding it to each other makes you feel. So, if you’re not going to ban the film on the basis of its politics and you’re not going to ax it for sex, what’s left? According to legend, at least, the real-life Czech censors came up with an ingenious justification that allowed them to save face without looking at all ridiculous—they banned Daisies for food wastage. If your planned economy isn’t bringing in the abundant harvests you hoped for, you don’t want moviegoers reminded of how hungry they are by watching two impudent dames rolling around in a bed of apples, casually snipping sausages or ordering a whole chicken as the final entrée of a four course meal. Daisies’ climactic food fight was the sour cherry on top of this too-decadent sundae. After the girls have fingered the finger food and pawed the pâté at someone else’s banquet, they grab giant handfuls of creamy cake and fling them onto each others’ faces, ending their party by stripping to their slips and walking all over the remaining uneaten feast in their high heels in an impromptu fashion show. The movie itself realizes that with this gluttonous display the Maries have gone too far; it uses its magical powers of retribution to plunge the girls into a cold lake after they hang on the chandelier. But the damage has already been done. The edible orgy may be a satirical assault on Western style capitalistic decadence, sure, but girls playing with their food is something too unvirtuous to tolerate.
If she’s telling the truth, then Vera Chytilová may have begun filming Daisies with an honest intention of critiquing the nihilism of these youths; but along the way she was seduced by the total artistic freedom she allowed herself. Watching the film today, everyone sides with the Maries rather than despises them. Their gleeful destruction and playful reconstruction of their drab world inspires us. At one point in the film, they cut off each others’ arms and heads with scissors; rather than getting upset about it, Maire I crosses her eyes and sticks out her tongue, Marie II bumps her decapitated head up against her longtime companion’s, and the two torsos duel with scissors until they’ve cut the very film we’re watching into shards that dance around on the screen independently. The freedom that we respond to in Daisies doesn’t actually come from the silly Maries and their vandalism of a banquet; it comes from watching the filmmakers demolish the rules of cinema. That’s the unfettered, truly subversive intellectual freedom that the censors sensed and felt compelled to repress. Surrealism, which depends on the free associative play of the mind, implicitly critiques rationalism and order—all order, and therefore specifically whatever order is reigning at the time. The same weapons the avant-garde used in Western Europe to attack capitalism inevitably eviscerated Marxism when used on the other side of the Iron Curtain. (That’s one of the reasons Western leftists didn’t universally embrace Daisies; Jean-Luc Godard weakly protested that the movie was “apolitical and cartoonish”).
In a bit of prescient irony, Chytilová intuited what would get Daisies banned in the film’s final dedication. Over footage of bombed out buildings and cued to the sound of gunfire, the following words type themselves out: “this film is dedicated to those who get upset only over a stomped-upon bed of lettuce.” Daisies stomped upon enough lettuce to get itself suppressed, but the regime that banned it had a lot more to be upset about.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“An exercise in avant-garde cinema that is freshly humorous and accessible, Daisies is a dark comedy that eschews a traditional narrative for a Dadaist construction of events.”–Andrea LeVasseur, All Movie Guide
IMDB LINK: Daisies (1966)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Second Run DVD – Daisies – Second Run DVD, the European distributor of the film, has collected an impressive number of essays, reviews and links concerning the movie
This Film’s Going Bad: Collaborative Cutting in Daisies – Dylan Rainforth perceptively discusses destruction and meaning in Daisies
Kinoeye: Vol. 2, Issue 8, 29 April 2002: Vera Chytilova Special – These articles on director Chytilová are academic but accessible; the pieces on “Angry Young Girls” and “The Void Behind the Mask” address Daisies most directly
Czech New Wave Cinema: The Children of Marx and Kafka – Laurel Harris’ excellent primer on the Czech New Wave for PopMatters includes an examination of Daisies as one of the movement’s key moments
Eclipse Series 32: Pearls of the Czech New Wave – This page collects all the booklet essays accompanying the films in the “Pearls of the New Wave” box set (including Daisies)
DVD INFO: Daisies DVD history follows an almost identical path as its 1966 sister film, A Report on the Party and the Guests. It begins its life on a (now out-of-print) Facets release (buy). As usual for Facets, the print was unrestored, but this release did contain a pair of fascinating extras in the letter written by the Cultural Commissar of the Czech Communist Party condemning the film and Chytilová’s response where she explains (perhaps deceptively) how the movie is in accord with socialist ideas. Years later, Second Run DVD brings the film to the European Region 2 market with a restored print and new special features. Finally, the Criterion Collection snaps up the rights and releases the movie on its Eclipse sub-label as part of the “Pearls of the Czech New Wave” set (buy), sans supplements (other than a short essay) but alongside other classic films such as fellow Certified Weird selection Party and Guests, the anthology Pearls of the Deep (which includes a surreal bridal segment by Chytilová), Evald Schorm‘s bleak drama Return of the Prodigal Son, Jirí Menzel‘s chaste sex comedy Capricious Summer, and Jaromil Jires‘ astoundingly anti-Communist (and also banned) The Joke.
UPDATE 11/1/2022: The Criterion Collection took its sweet time, but finally released a solo Blu-ray of Daisies (buy), with a 4K restoration from Janus Films. Film historians Daniel Bird and Peter Hames provide the commentary. Extras include interviews with film programmer Irena Kovarova, two documentaries about Chytilová, and two short films from the director (A Bagful of Fleas and Ceiling, both 1962). And of course, the usual booklet/film essay combination.
(This movie was nominated for review by “Kay” who called it a “very pretty and colourful feminist Czech movie that’s quite weird and entertaining visually.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)