Daisies

  •  / 
November 16, 2010 by Matthew Mesaros

Like a French New Wave film on acid, writer/director Vera Chytilová’s incomparable 1966 film Daisies is as pure an example of barely controlled cinematic chaos as I’ve ever seen. The film plays more like a Looney Tunes cartoon than any live action film I can summon. Indeed, Vera Chytilová might have been the lone female voice to come out of the Czech New Wave, but Daisies couldn’t be further from her contemporaries if she tried. It has more in common with the radical experimentation of Godard, but while Godard couldn’t help being artsy-fartsy (in the best sense of the word), Chytilová replaces that pretentiousness with what amounts to a giant ball of psychedelic fun.

At the heart of the film are its two leads, Marie I (Jitka Cerhová—the brunette) and Marie II (Ivana Karbanová—the blonde), two mischievous pixie nymphs who feel like cousins of Shakespare’s Puck stepping right out of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. The world they step into is war-torn Czechoslovakia, but a viewer would barely realize this given the dearth of time Chytilová spends dwelling on any social context. Indeed, the only glimpses we see of war are at the beginning, accompanied by music intercut with images of a shifting gear. The opening, if nothing else, effectively sets up the modus operandi of the film: images randomly follow images, scenes randomly follow scenes, music and sound randomly accompany both and space and time are merely trifles to be violated at any time.

There is no story. Certainly nothing you could lay out neatly in a plot synopsis or in a three-act script. The film is merely a series of events that evolve the two girls; usually eating, playing, destroying, rebuilding or chattering nonsense that may occasionally, if vaguely, be related to some kind of existential philosophy. The film itself opens with the two sitting against a wall and staring at the screen with their robotic movements accompanied by “squeaks” as if they were rusted. The dialogue centers around the idea that since the world has gone bad, they too will go bad. But, despite their intentions, they seem to be less “bad” throughout the film than simply amoral. Their ravenous appetites seem to sum the idea that if gluttony is a sin, then they’re guilty, but who are they really hurting?

Marie I seems to have a penchant for going out with older men, but this likewise seems to come to nothing. Neither girl is overtly sexual and Marie I seems to simply prefer older men because they tend to have more money and can pay for her meals like some kind of Japanese Tanuki (the god of gluttony, boozing, restaurants; known for mischievous pranks and shape-shifting). Marie II goes out with an artist who becomes obsessed with her and declares his love, but at the same time she plays with him by stripping nude and covering herself with his butterfly collections; she immediately forgets about him when he calls, too busy cutting up fruit with scissors and eating it.

While the girls don’t literally shape-shift in the film, Vera Chytilová’s camera does; nothing in the film is concrete: black & white mixes with monochrome filters—of all colors: orange, red, purple, green etc.—and more standard color photography. Time and space can be violated in a single cut where a girl falls down in one location and lands in another; flash montage sequences (of anything) can be intercut at any moment, usually paced to the tune of a rhythmic sound effect (like a ticking clock). One might accuse Chytilová of style-over-substance if the application wasn’t so playful. While Godard might introduce, say, the disjunction of sound and image to make the audience metafictionally aware, in Daisies it seems to all merely be a part of Chytilová’s anarchic game. Like any game, it’s best if you play along and have fun, rather than resist and take it too seriously.

If there is anything approaching a sustained idea in the film it comes with the closing which ends with both Maries invading an upper-class dining room in which a lavish meal has been prepared. The two, of course, can’t help but try out the food—slowly at first, trying not to leave any evidence of having been there. This quickly disintegrates into the two gorging themselves, laying waste to the place, having a food fight and eventually deciding that they’ve done wrong and should fix everything and put it back like it was. Even their repair is filled with a silly, cartoonish glee, and how else could it end but with the massive chandelier falling on top of them as they lay on the table wrapped in newspaper dresses?

Daisies, however, isn’t entirely inaccessible. For those familiar with Buñuel, Dali, Man Ray and the other early Surrealists/Dadaists, this fits rather neatly into that tradition of “pure psychic automatism” (or at least the appearance of it). André Breton’s surrealist manifesto defined it as creativity that was divested of conscious control, so as to make the results incomprehensible, absurd and devoid of intentional meaning. The irony about surrealism is that meaning seems to manifest itself whether artists intend it to or not. But Daisies, as a whole, is so abstract that it both invites and repels interpretation simultaneously. Certainly one can read it as feminist—the Maries together are some kind of pure, unbridled female energy spirit that finds itself at odds with and marginalized in a masculine society—or socialistic—their chaos is invoked inside a greedy, superfluous capitalistic system which revolves around luxurious pretensions—or even Jungian—the Maries are goddess archetypes that could be traced back to Norse mythology and Loki, or twin goddesses such as the Leucippides or Arke and Iris—but no single interpretation is entirely satisfactory.

That kind of intellectual over-analysis seems out of place in a film that is so gosh darn fun. Above all else, Daisies is a film that kept me smiling from the first frame to the last. I was vividly reminded of what Dave McKean (illustrator, photographer, comic artist, graphic designer, filmmaker, musician) said about Un Chien Andalou, that in early cinema there was a wonderful element of unpredictability and excitement when that light began flashing on the screen, a willingness to experiment and experience things that hadn’t been experienced before, but how that spirit has been lost in favor of formulaic predictability and satisfaction of surface expectations. This is one of those films that brings back that spirit, and it’s guaranteed to either elate or endlessly frustrate audiences who will miss the experience of a recognizable plot, progression or conflict.

Ultimately, I feel I must end with a kind of tribute that may express what the viewing experience of Daisies is better than anything else I could say: The fried rabbit mows the lawn as a daffodil sprays a skunk at the end of the evening with the putrid sun setting on their fears. But love took a holiday and the mole killed a farmer. The manure wasn’t ready to serve for dinner. But who could lament the lack of a gnome who sang with the rooster and annoyed us all? Truly, it must have been the Jackrabbit.

Contribute to the discourse