Surrealist and Avant-Garde films aren’t always the most popular choice for the average moviegoer. Until Leos Carax’s demented Holy Motors generated some outside-bet Oscar buzz a few years ago, I’d rather watch a compilation tape of hairy builders receiving a back, sack and crack before dabbling with the avant-garde.
My perspective has changed slightly since then, largely on the basis of Denis Lavant’s incredible (literally) balls-out multiple performances in that movie, and two of my favourite films of the past few years are of the avant-garde variety – Dziga Vertov’s hypnotic portrait of a city in Man with a Movie Camera, and Věra Chytilová’s playful yet provocative Daisies.
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A cornerstone of the Czech New Wave, Daisies tells of two young women, known as Marie I (Jitka Cerhová) and Marie II (Ivana Karbanová), who declare that they are broken and in that case, they might as well be bad…
The rest of the breezy seventy-minute run time is a montage of barely connected skits and scenes, jarringly distinguished by Chytilová’s abrasive use of different film stocks, filters, and aggressive transition between monochrome and colour.
The more vaguely narrative episodes involve the girls screwing with the expectations of potential male suitors, especially in a scene where they wring out a wealthy elderly chap for a slap-up meal and some beers. Otherwise, it occasionally veers close to the am-dram, probably because the two young leads were non-professional actors.
Cerhová and Karbanová inhabit the film with a complete guilelessness and lack of ego, handling the slapstick and absurdity with absolute aplomb.
They are not sympathetic characters in any way as their behaviour is usually alienating, but they attack their roles with such brio that it’s impossible not to tag along. I’ve read reviews where the word “Chaplinesque” gets bandied about, and they certainly display a talent for physical comedy.
For all the fun and frolics Daisies remains an agitator’s film, even sixty years later. While some films of the Czech New Wave hide any subversive subtext beneath layers of melancholic, whimsical nostalgia, Daisies is clearly designed to heckle a chauvinist society, and/or Communist overlords. The film was banned, and Chytilová was also forbidden to make a movie in her homeland for almost a decade.
I think the feminist reading of Daisies is more troublesome. On first viewing, I thought – “Wow! Girl power!” – because most Czech films I’ve seen present women as objects of lust for the male characters. Even the eponymous Marketa Lazarová in František Vláčil’s wild and capricious epic is subject to the violent whims of the men around her until she eventually strikes out on her own in the final scene.
Seeing Daisies again, I felt that Chytilová’s motives were more pessimistic – while the girls lead the guys around by their penises, they still need to conform to gender stereotypes and act like a pair of giggling bimbos in order to extract what they want from the men. They’re like a pair of weaponised automatons created by the director, wound up and set into motion, mindless sex bombs antically targeting the male libido.
The bookend sequences of tracer fire from aircraft and bombs exploding reinforce the idea that an overarching malaise generated by global conflict is the larger issue, also created by men.
Daisies is a provocative, funny and exhilarating work, ideal for anyone seeking an experiment with experimental cinema. With its zeitgeisty Sixties vibe and explosions of colour, it also makes a spiky alternative choice for a summer movie pick.