Daisies

Daisies ★★★★★

What’s behind the cuckold chuckles of Daisies? Two dolls, both named Marie, come to life and embark on a quest to end their spoiled, petty, oppressed, patriarchal world. As they bait and switch horny old men and cut up phallic food-stuffs, eventually ending up pigging out on a banquet meant for male Communist officials, the audience gleefully laughs along with the Maries’ whacky antics and up-your-nose-with-a-rubber-hose attitudes. But by director-writer Vera Chytilova’s own insistence, the film is a “bizarre comedy of satire and sarcasm oriented towards both the protagonists”. Could it be both? Chytilova’s seemingly contradictory statement weirdly gels with the film’s stance against stability. How else better to show this than through a skillful deployment of Czech-steeped comedy that is delightfully transnational?

Before proceeding, a context of Daisies’ production history is necessary to ground our look into its comedy. Daisies was the second feature film of Chytilova’s career, and her fifth film overall. As detailed in Josef Skvorecky’s personal history of the Czech cinema All the Bright Young Men and Women (woefully out of print, an excellent resource for our means), Chytilova worked odd jobs in the 40s and 50s — as a clapper-girl, a fashion model, and a photographer, before being accepted into the FAMU (aka, “Prague School of Filmmakers”) in the late 1950s. She was the only female who was accepted into the Directors’ class. She made her debut with 1961’s Ceiling, a film starkly different from her mid-to-late-60s experimental work. Shot in a social realist (not Socialist realist) style similar to Andrej Wajda or early István Szabó, it was decried by Skvorecky for its unconvincing didacticism and its fakeness. He lambasts Chytilova’s decision to end the film in a common cliché of social realist filmmaking of the time, a “return to the people for cathartic purposes." It’s this need to tell a coherent narrative with emotionally involving characters and a obligation to political correctness that Chytilova slowly expunges as she evolves in her later works, A Bagful of Fleas (1962) and Something Different (1963), the latter of which was her first feature-length film. These, as well as an entry to the 1965 Czech New Wave omnibus film The Pearls of the Deep, “The Restaurant and the World,” are the prolonged prologue to Daisies. Michael Koresky describes it as “perhaps the most surreal and oblique” of the five segments of Pearls of the Deep, drawing upon “just the sort of associative cutting and spontaneous image-making Chytilová would become known for.” It is also worth noting that it is the scariest of the five segments, drawing upon surrealist imagery and slow-motion to conjure up a nightmarish atmosphere. It is quite different from the more overtly comic tone of Daisies. This may have to do with the influence of Ester Krumbachova, the Czech playwright and screenwriter who wrote the scenarios for some of the more playful and anarchic entries of the Czechoslovak New Wave. Krumbachova’s credits include the savagely, bitterly ironic A Report on the Party and Some Guests (directed by husband Jan Nemec), Jaromil Jeres’s Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970), and two of Chytilova’s own: Fruit of Paradise (1969) and Daisies.

Formally and tonally, Daisies situates its transgressive feminine comedy within American and especially Czech comic traditions, especially those of the silent era. Daisies is peppered with moments of baroque slapstick: from the cabaret scene, where the Maries fall drunkenly on each other in order to disrupt the bourgeois club, to their stumbling out of a train tunnel in blackface. Here, the film strategically evokes the rich tradition of Czech silent comedy — for instance, the comic duo of George Voskovic and Jan Werich. This duo’s experiments across several types of media prefigure, in certain ways, Chytilova’s own keen interest in formalism. As Skvorecky notes, “Together with Jaroslav Jezek, the father of Czech jazz, [Voskovic and Werich] molded dadism, circus, jazz, Chaplin, Keaton, vaudeville, and surrealism into a new, distinctly Czech art form, [creating] a new form of intellectual-political musical." Chytilova calls upon the formalist anarchy of cinema’s early days and resituates it within a specifically Czech political milieu. The silent comedy principles at work in Chytilova’s film are myriad and bountiful. They include:

(1) the mechanization of the human body, a jerky and half-Keaton deployment of angular bodies in the Maries’ doll-house opening, at the cabaret, in their bedroom;

(2) shifting color tints;

(3) the tableau framing of many of Chytilova’s shots;

(4) intertitle-like interludes, where Chytilova cuts to a non-sequitur image (a collapsing building, a jumble of Dadaist shapes) to obliquely comment upon the scene;

and (5) the aforementioned blackface, a common Voskovic and Werich technique harkening back to American minstrelry and vaudeville.

Most of these references lose their meaning in their transposition to Chytilova’s 60s Czechoslovakia. So, the blackface (a commonly stereotypical form that demeans blacks) loses most of its political meaning, existing solely as a visual that doesn’t signify much. The references to Keaton, Chaplin, and Voskovic-Werich, too, lose much of their meaning, as Chytilova (ever the funky Dadaist) takes liberally from the past without ever explicitly calling it forth.

This pileup of sensations, whiz gadgets, and shock-effects adds to the surreality of the Daisies experience. Chytilova threatens her imagined target-audience — men, the bourgeoisie, Czech police and governmental officials — by drawing upon traditions defined by their lack of center, by their love of instability, and by their preference of abstraction through allegory. Historically, Chytilova has good reason to deploy this type of humor: “Irony,” as Katarina Soukop writes, “is one stylistic mode that Daisies makes ample use of, although it was officially banned by Socialist Realism.” Thus, if Chytilova upsets the (male) powers-that-be and the official, state-mandated form of filmmaking, the first steps of her goal are accomplished. On an extremely superficial level, the film does affirm state-mandated socialism — in the real and alternate endings, the transgressive Maries are punished. But this ending is so tongue-in-cheek, playful, un-full of itself, and comic, that it could never hope to assuage a state official whose job depended upon their acceptance of films which blindly affirm the state’s ideals. In other words, Chytilova commits to a revolution only by her own rules. It’s her sign of resistance in a society based upon patriarchal and non-state-mandated artistic oppression.

As Chytilova and Krumbachova script it, feminine laughter plays heavily in their provocation of the stuck-up, squashed-salad-offended State. For one, the soundtrack is festered with the high-tittering of the two Maries. Indeed, Western screenings of Daisies are often accompanied by exclusively feminine laughter. Bliss Cua Lim, in her account of Daisies’ reception in the West, notes that while “a concerned male viewer expressed his objections to the film’s protagonists, whom he characterized as ‘annoyingly babyish, infantile girls’”, the movie is “paradoxically a source of glee” and power for many women. Anca Parvulescu, too, has characterized the use of laughter of Daisies, broadly, as an attack on manners in the Communist state. But because the laughter is coded as feminine, we can also say the laughter is an attack, specifically, of patriarchy, both in Czechoslovakia and around the world. Males in the film are never granted the privilege of laughter. Only the Maries harness the ability to laugh at their suitors, crafting ever creative ways to erupt into giggles. (At one point, in a perverse parody of a melodramatic train departure, after their second male target has left, the Maries brood over the loss of this man with mock tears. The crying shifts suddenly yet subtly into tears of joy, chuckles of mirth.) So — just as the Maries’ relentless laughing aggravate their male victims, so, too does Chytilova apply pressure to the humorless Communist officials via her deployment of Czech/American comedy and satire. Despite the film’s surface-insistence that the girls are not politically specific in their actions, all these females’ provocations are inexorably tied and of immense political import. Laughter, as seen in the train-departing sketch and throughout the movie, is depicted as a rupture; random, chaotic, sudden, it has something of the revolutionary potential of another sudden bodily function, the orgasm, in Dusan Makavejev’s W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism (1972). Just as Makavejev’s subjects suggest that the disruptive energies and subveresive potentials of the orgasm can be harnessed for the purposes of individual liberation — so, too, does Chytilova suggest feminine laughter can be weaponized as a way to metaphorically emasculate the establishment patriarchy.

How does this weaponization of laughter manifest itself in Daisies? We see it in the scene with the two Maries and the second male suitor, where the act of cutting is tied with the act of laughing. As they pick up a pair of scissors, they titter as they joyfully cut the suitor’s pocket-hankie into pieces. Cutting a piece of his sartorial identity (bourgeois, well-to-do, orderly), they might as well be castrating the man, stubbing his sense of superiority. Carrying that laughter-scissors association throughout the film, we see the scissors deployed again in the scene where a randy composer (Jan Klusak, the pudge-faced regular of Czech New Wave films) calls up Blonde Marie on the phone. As he launches into a slobbering and rather pathetically fawning monologue to her greatness, the Maries smirk and silently chuckle as they cut phallic food objects: pickles, bananas, sausages. It is a hilarious and biting moment for its provocativeness and its ribald humor. Bliss Cua Lim, writing on this moment: “Patriarchal overinvestment in the phallus is viewed in Daisies with irony and humor. To a Freudian perspective that sees women primarily in relation to their lack of a penis, the two Maries’ jocular laughter as they snip away at sausages and men’s undergarments holds out no prospect of solace.” The association is clear: to attack patriarchal standards of propriety, comedy (and its chief by-product, laughter) are crucial weapons in the messy battle.

The comic barrage of montage is the essence of Daisies' patriarchal attack. An image develops in patriarchy of Woman as Eternal and Perfectly Whole, “otherizing” the woman through an attempt to preserve the stock-trope of her virginity and righteousness. It is precisely this concept of “wholeness” and “eternal grace” that Chytilova attacks—both at the political (i.e., socialist realist) level, and at the patriarchal level. How does this attack manifest itself in the film proper?

First, let us treat the ontological implications of montage alone, separate from the laughter/comedic and patriarchal components. In the work of Chytilova, we are privy to the act of cutting as an act inherently against the notion of ‘wholeness,’ togetherness, and stability. To cut means to take something which has a definite identity and to pull it apart, crafting a new identity from it, proving that the initially ‘stable’ identity never existed as such. These are the principles by which Dadaists understood their process of photocollage and montage; they employed it as a way “to convulse reality from within, to demonstrate it as fractured by spacing”. This, too, is the way Chytilova employs cutting: as a way to attack conceived notions of an ideologically coherent reality as was encouraged in the Stalinist and post-Stalinist state of Czechoslovakia.

But Chytilova also employs montage for specifically feminist goals having to do with certain annoying male tendencies in Czech art history. As Lim notes, Chytilova works against the misogynist model championed by male surrealist artists’ representation of the female body. These surrealists (Andre Breton, Man Ray, and especially the dolls of Hans Bellmer) excessively delighted in the grotesque manipulations of a woman’s body, while maintaining an emotional perception of her as “eternal” and “untouchable” that never caused major chinks in the armor of womanly Wholeness, the surrealists’ purported target. Chytilova reverses this in Daisies. Her depiction of the Maries’ surreally-manipulated body does two things. First, flaunts the Maries’ blatant beauty; but second, it subverts this perception in the famous “headless bodies” scene, where their bodies are cut into such ersatz shards and pieces that, by the end of the scene, they are completely unrecognizable as women. When Brunette Marie’s head is lobbed off, the derelict body is so anonymous it could be either one of the two girls. No individuality and no method of identification, no kinkiness to the bizarre image of a headless woman with runaway scissors. Here, Chytilova reclaims the surrealist chopping-up of a woman’s body by herself deploying the cutting, on her own sardonic, blackly comic terms. Thus, she perhaps got closer to the surrealist aim of complete dissection of the whole and of unified reality than did her male counterparts. And it is precisely because Chytilova is consciously gendering art, consciously aware of the discrepancies between men and women, and acknowledging them instead of ignoring them.

Other moments which disrupt or “cut up” the masculine perception of woman include the celebrated dining scenes. This baroque presentation of girls pigging out, acting decidedly ‘un-lady-like’ in the assumptions made of ‘decent’ women in patriarchy, has a similar deconstructionist effect as the literal deconstruction scene and other moments where laughter and comedy are used in the film. As Soukop says in her essay on Daisies and its relationship with food: “The elevated, official culture which Chytilova’s Daisies ingests and purges in subversive ‘fits and starts’ is not only the patriarchal canon of feminine representation, or the codes of high art, but also the imposed canon of Socialist realism (Souop 46).” Thus, we get a sense of the larger, political implications of Chytilova’s comedy, her excessive and borderline-fetishistic focus on food, and why such scenes can both delight an audience and cause them to think about the political gravity of the scene.

Daisies’ deployment of laughter and comedy helps us understand the film’s formalist obsession with montage, and the anti-Establishment goals behind that obsession. Laughter and comedy help contextualize the Maries’ seemingly apolitical, unspecific, never-clarified provocations at the world. By situating the Maries within a transgressive, anti-patriarchal context, their actions are given political heft and weight that other male filmmakers might have neither the capacity nor the patience to allow female characters such as the two Maries. Though the Maries themselves may not be aware of it, their chirpish behavior is the way to combat and shake up a revolution. However, they should not expect said revolution to happen any time soon, if at all in their own lifetime. After all, the bleakly ironic ending recognizes only two possible choices for the Maries. Either the patriarchal forces which monitor artistic and political thought drown the Maries; or, they accept the will of the party, and still end up punished via chandelier assassination. In either case, Chytilova acknowledges the bleakness for revolutionaries in Czechoslovakia, especially females as transgressive as she was. (Indeed, this ended up being the case for Chytilova, who, after her ultra-surrealist Fruit of Paradise in 1969, was forced from making films between 1969-1975. She returned with films like The Apple Game [1977], but never quite recovered the shoot-from-the-hip anarchy of her 60s days.) At the same time, Daisies is a treatise that recognizes the inherent streak of transgression for any females under oppressive rule, whether explicitly political or not. Whether or not Chytilova wished her work to be labeled “feminist,” it certainly reads this way — both for its insight into female-empathizing consciousness, and for its delirious attack on codes of patriarchy.

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