Directed by Vera Chytilová
Daisies is the brashest, brattiest transmission from the ephemeral Czech New Wave, the roughly five-year period in the mid-60s when a small group of filmmakers in that communist country were given loose reign to make experimental, usually stealthily political films with state funds. Schooled at FAMU, the national film institute in Prague, these directors were hip to the cinematic mutinies happening elsewhere in Europe, and their output ranged from the social-realistic and literary (Jiri Menzel's Closely Watched Trains), to the plotlessly avant-garde. The beginning of the movement's end coincided with Soviet tanks rolling in in 1968—the Warsaw Pact invasion that cut short the democratic reforms of the Prague Spring. But Vera Chytilováwas already being blacklisted by 1967 because of the effrontery of Daisies, which a party deputy declared a "waste of money" that had "nothing in common with our republic, socialism, and the ideals of communism." Worst of all were the (numerous) scenes of food wastage. After 1969's Fruit of Paradise, Chytilováwasn't able to make another film for seven years.
Featuring short adaptations of stories by Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal by Menzel, Jan Nemec, Evald Schorm, Jaromil Jires, and Chytilová, the omnibus Pearls of the Deep is an excellent primer on this particular New Wave, but Daisies is the most famous/infamous document, and the most attuned to what we think of as mid-60s American notions of free-spiritedness and youth triumphant—but the selfish fun here is darkened with heavy correctives from Chytilová.
There is no story, just "adventures," had by giddy, inseparable "doll-virgins" Marie I and Marie II (pig-tailed brunette Jitka Cerhova and daisy-crowned strawberry blonde Ivana Karbanova). Deciding upfront that the world's going bad, they decide to follow suit. Their romping ranges from the silly (rolling each other up in rugs, bikini-posing, eating cut-out magazine steaks) to the slightly more sinister (leading on buffoonish older men in exchange for six-course meals). The latter episodes get funnier with repetition—as the meals drag on, the man's patience thins, and they all end with a train-side farewell and the sucker in tears. The laughing Maries just don't give a shit.
With its characters' fun-loving and wholesale rejection of normative, male-determined propriety, Daisies is obviously, if not profoundly, feminist. At one point, the Maries scissor phallic cucumbers and bananas while ignoring a whiny suitor's pathetic speakerphone entreaties. Not to be outdone, Chytilová, working with husband-cinematographer Jaroslav Kucera and art designer Ester Krumbachova, cut up the Maries, visually decapitating and dismembering them into human collages. It's only one instance in a film that is front-to-back stylistic experimentation, anarchy that mirrors that of the characters. Color film stock meets black-and-white meets a warehouse full of gels and filters, with interspersed footage of bombings to help push through the point, if you weren't there already, that all this decadence might bring a hangover.
It's unclear, and fine to be so, to what degree Chytilováis celebrating the Maries' capers and to what degree she's finger-wagging (the final act seems condemnatory but it's also ironic). She has written that Daisies is a "morality play" showing that the "roots of evil may lie concealed in the pranks of everyday life," but it's worth noting that that was in a letter to Czech President Husak pleading escape from blacklisting. At least part of the film's sympathy lies with the common proletariat. Walking in the country one day, the Maries are passed by a line of bicycling laborers who ignore their insolent antics. "Nobody's paying attention to us," complains Marie. "Maybe we're lacking something." But their solution, simple and flippant, brings you back into their camp: "No more walks!"
Opens July 6 at BAMcinématek