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Vera Chytilová's seldom-seen Daisies: the sex farce that shook the Soviet Bloc

Bearable Lightness



A proxy for Eastern European Soviet dominance since the end of the second World War, Czechoslovakia by the 1960s was a crippled pseudo-state with only a murky semblance of control over its own destiny. The nation found itself wedged, both literally and figuratively, between the past and future. To the West lay the new face of European post-war economic and social enlightenment; to the East lingered the old specter of consolidated state power, to which the fate of the nation still belonged.

In 1962, state policy began to reflect a social climate that had shifted to favor progressive reform. Even so, all mass communication still passed through the scrutiny of Soviet-endorsed censorship. Thus the country's newfound proclivity for Westward-leaning thinking struggled to establish a voice in the national discourse. Miraculously, however, the medium for the message would be found in the nation's robust film production industry — particularly among students at the prestigious Film and TV School of The Academy of Performing Arts in Prague (or more concisely, FAMU). From there, a deluge of new directors would challenge the nation's preconceptions of cinema and society.

This Nova Vina, aka the Czechoslovak New Wave, immediately garnered international celebration through films such as Milos Forman's The Fireman's Ball and Jiri Menzel's Closely Watched Trains. But the most confrontational of the bunch — in its anarchic form, content and disdain for propriety — was Vra Chytilová's antic 1966 sex farce Daisies, currently playing the U.S. in a restored Janus Films print that shows this weekend at The Belcourt. Deceptively blithe, it's a film that fights dogma and indoctrination with dizzy eroticism and an attack of the giggles.

Light on narrative but dense with new ideas, Daisies follows the exploits of Marie I and Marie II, a pair of teenage girls who, from the vantage of their tenement window, see a world that has "gone bad." Deciding that "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em." the girls decide to go bad along with it, wreaking drunken havoc in nightclubs, posh restaurants and in the hearts of men. Their madcap exploits are bookended by grainy WWII footage, framing their featherweight rebellion as no less valid a response to wartime horrors and the suppression of the spirit that succeeds them.

Surprisingly, it wasn't the sexual or satirical content but the depiction of wasted food in the film's (in)famous banquet finale that caused censors to shelve the picture, until international acclaim prompted its Czechoslovakian premiere a year later. The film's nihilistic stance also found a curious detractor: one Jean-Luc Godard, who at the height of his infatuation with Western Marxism dismissed the picture as apolitical and lacking in substance. 

The real anarchy, however, is found not in the wanton behavior of the Maries, but in Chytilová's radical, disjointed approach to filmic structure. The director eschews traditional narrative in favor of a kaleidoscopic assemblage of cinematic experimentation. Deploying bursts of color and collage, augmented by cinematographer Jaroslav Kucera's heavy use of red-, blue- and green-filtered photography, Chytilová downplays the psychology of her teen heroines while evoking a sense of vertigo that mirrors the confusion of Czechoslovakian society.

The six short years of the Czechoslovak New Wave would come to an abrupt end in 1968, when newly appointed First Secretary of the Communist Party Alexander Dubek attempted to pass Western-style reforms, instigating an invasion and subsequent occupation by Warsaw Pact nations that would engulf Czechoslovakia until the fall of the Soviet Empire. While many of her Nova Vina contemporaries would emigrate to the U.S. and make strong films in a similar vein — Forman's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Ivan Passer's Born to Win and Cutter's Way — Chytilová chose to stay behind.

As a result, she would see her career sidelined until the mid 1970s, when she re-emerged with a string of slyly political and sharp-witted social realist films that would continue into the Aughts. Still, to Western audiences, Daisies remains her best-known work, and a rare example of unencoded dissent from within the Soviet Bloc.


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