Vera Chytilova’s Daisies (1966) manages to be both visceral and abstract, playful and savage, intellectual and infantile, all at once. Watching it last night, I was literally trembling with joy and exhilaration. I felt the same way when I first saw the film, nearly thirty years ago. in graduate school.
Daisies is a film of the Czech New Wave, but it doesn’t have much in common — aside from the rejection of traditional narrative, and of the aesthetics of “socialist realism” — with the other works of the movement. Chytilova, you might say, plays Godard to Jiri Menzel‘s Truffaut. (Chytilova and Menzel went to FAMU, the famed Czech film school together, become close friends, and occasionally worked together — see the biography of Chytilova here). Daisies is a riot of color, jump cuts and shock cuts and deliberate mismatches, garish pictorial inserts, incongruous nondiegetic music and sounds, and anti-naturalistic special effects. Sometimes the screen is in color, sometimes in black and white, sometimes tinted with monochromat filters, and sometimes awash in crazed pixelation (? — or whatever the pre-digital equivalent of this might be) effects. The film as a whole is a relentless assault — against film conventions and forms and indeed cinema itself, against social norms and rules and indeed society itself, and finally against the spectator. This assault is violently nihilistic, but it is also utterly joyous and gleeful: an explosion of affect, in which I share as I watch.
Daisies delights as well as shocks — probably, at this point, delights more than it shocks, if I can judge from the responses of my students viewing it last night. And yet, despite a certain degree of cult devotion, it hasn’t ever been given its rightful due in histories of film, or even in histories of experimental, radical, and avant-garde film. Owen Hatherley writes brilliantly about it (and I am deeply indebted to his analysis of the film); but his is the only discussion I have been able to find that is in any way adequate to the film’s astonishing force and radicality. Even those of us who love Daisies have trouble finding the proper terms to account for it.
Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, in the wake of Laura Mulvey’s groundbreaking article “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (1975), there was a lot of debate on the subject of what it might mean to break away from conventional cinematic pleasures. Such pleasures, as Mulvey compellingly demonstrated, are embedded in structures of heterosexual male domination and female subordination. Mulvey herself calls (somewhat ambiguously) for an effort “to free the look of the camera into its materiality in time and space and the look of the audience into dialectics, passionate detachment.” But the main thrust of her essay was upon the “destruction of pleasure.” Mulvey called for a practice (both of criticism and of alternative filmmaking) that “destroys the satisfaction, pleasure and privilege” of conventional film viewing.
Much of the debate, after Mulvey, was over the question of whether feminist filmmaking would therefore have to be didactic, “alienating,” and intellectualizing; or whether other regimes of pleasure and affect, besides the patriarchal one, were attainable (or even conceivable). Did anyone notice that, a decade before Mulvey, Chytilova had already answered this question, in the affirmative? For the sheer joy of Daisies owes nothing to the mechanisms of identification and objectification, sadism and paranoia, that Mulvey dissects in her article. Daisies works, it works very powerfully indeed; but we don’t have a good language to describe how and why it works, and that is a large part of the reason it has been relegated to the margins of film history.
So, we have two girls — or young women, if you prefer; the actresses (Jitka Cerhova and Ivana Karbanova) are probably in their early twenties. (The IMDB doesn’t list their dates of birth, and says that neither of them ever acted in films again, aside from a couple of minor roles just after Daisies, in 1966 and 1967). We don’t even know these characters’ names — indeed, they are both called by a number of different names over the course of the film — though most discussions, and the credits list on IMDB, call them “Marie I” and “Marie II.”
After the opening credits — which are printed against a montage combining, on the one hand, shots of something that looks like a 1920s Constructivist or Dadaist machine-sculpture, and on the other hand, grainy video footage of wartime bombings and destruction — we see the two Maries seated, side by side and facing the camera, in some sort of open box or proscenium stage. Their bodies are stiff, their movements are awkward, as if they were puppets. Every time either of them moves a limb, we hear a loud creaking on the soundtrack, suggesting a kind of clumsy mechanical animation. They are bored. They tell each other that, because the world is “bad,” their only alternative is to be “bad” too. (Another translation has “spoiled” instead of “bad”).
The two Maries go on to indulge themselves in various sorts of antisocial behavior. They continually complain to one another, and squabble. But they don’t seem to have any stake in these arguments, and it’s impossible to make any consistent distinction between their points of view. (One is blonde and one brunette, and that’s as far as their differences go). They go out on dates to fancy restaurants with evidently well-to-do older men (what does this mean in the Communist context? We know that socialist society wasn’t as classless and egalitarian, nor as gender-equal, as it was supposed to be). The men buy them expensive drinks and food, hoping (presumably) to seduce them, but instead finding themselves having to cope with the girls’ raucous behavior. Marie and Marie wear short dresses; one of them wears her hair is in ponytails; both of them put on lots of eyeshadow. They seem less like vamps than like little girls playing dress-up, or (more disagreeably) like objects of pederastic fantasy (do I have the right word here? what is the heterosexual equivalent of “pederastic”?). The men never get the sex they were hoping for; instead they are hustled off to catch a train, and abandoned. The girls just laugh giddily, and go off to make more trouble.
The two Maries gleefully trash their own apartment, as well as all the public spaces they wander through; they are constantly on the move, from the latrine of some lavish restaurant, to the banks of the river, to the train station, and finally through the corridors and up the floors (riding in a dumbwaiter) of an imposing official building, where they find food and silverware lavishly and meticulously laid out for (we presume) some sort of State banquet. In the climactic sequence of the film, they proceed to trash the banquet room, stuffing themselves with giant portions of meat and poultry, devouring cake and booze, smashing plates and glasses, having tumultuous food fights, and finally swinging from the ceiling chandelier. Meantime, the soundtrack music is either portentous or martial, taken from Wagner’s Ring among other sources. Surely this is the greatest “food” sequence in the history of film.
A word of distinction is in order. The two Maries’ bad behavior isn’t anything like the girls-can-act-like-raunchy-frat-boys-too stuff we’ve seen so much of in recent years, whether in TV shows like Sex and the City, or in fashionable public behavior like that analyzed in Ariel Levy’s recent book Female Chauvinist Pigs. These are situations in which women displace men in order to take over the dominating phallic role for themselves — and end up, therefore, behaving just as stupidly and oppressively as men do.
But the two Maries’ behavior works in an entirely different register. It is completely infantile. They seem uninterested in sexuality per se: they only dress up in swinging-sixties-“sexy” garb the better to confound and humiliate older men (something they are interested in) and to create general confusion and disorder. Instead of sex, they are interested in food. They lose no opportunity to gorge themselves. And they take a child’s pleasure in breaking stuff, shredding stuff, and burning stuff. In particular, they are continually cutting things up with scissors. This latter action resonates with “cutting” in the cinematic sense; their aggression is matched by Chytilova’s anti-continuity editing, which often cuts correctly on action or on an object, only in order to place everything abruptly into a totally different setting. In one sequence, the Maries cut up parts of their own bodies on screen — one’s arm suddenly disappears, followed by the other’s head; finally the screen image itself gets cut, breaking up into small squares squirming all over the frame.
In Freudian terms, one might say that sexuality has been repressed in favor of a regression to oral — narcissistic, incorporating, and aggressive — drives and pleasures. But I think the Maries’ behavior is better seen affirmatively, as a positive construction, rather than as a reaction or regression. The movement from sexuality to food is, precisely, a detournement in the Situationist sense, rather than a “failure of development.” It is also a Rimbaudian “systematic derangement of the senses,” and a Nietzschean movement, a striving “to realize in oneself the eternal joy of becoming — that joy which also encompasses joy in destruction.” Though certainly Nietzsche never imagined this happening in so delightfully “girlie” a manner as it does here.
The two Maries’ delight in gorging themselves on food and drink is intimately connected with their delight in cutting. Their play with scissors evidently implies castration. Besides newspapers, bedspreads, and their own and others’ clothing, they are also continually snipping up phallic objects like sausages and pickles — as well as presumptively feminine ones like apples. (Castration, figurative or literal, seems to be a recurring theme in Chytilova’s work. One of her far more recent films, Traps (1998), which unfortunately I have never had the opportunity to see, aroused much controversy for its story of a woman who castrates the two men who raped her).
Destroying the phallus doesn’t just mean undermining male power, but undermining the power of the whole “Symbolic Order.” Among othet things, it means destroying the opposition — or undermining the gap — between things and words, or more broadly between things and their representations (whether these be verbal or visual). At one point, one of the Maries cuts out a picture of food from a magazine, then stuffs it into her mouth and chews it up with the same avidity she shows for actual food. This is in the course of a scene where the two Maries roast sausages by setting fires and burning down parts of their apartment. Then they spear and cut the wieners with an enormous cook’s fork, and an equally enormous pair of scissors. All the while they laugh at the complaints of a jilted lover, whose pathetic pleadings are heard over the phone. During the entire scene, some sort of sacramental choral music plays, nondiegetically, in the background.
Everything the two Maries do is destructive. They revel in sheer waste, in “unemployed negativity,” in “expenditure without return.” Above all, Daisies expresses utter scorn for any sort of productivity, whether economic, social, or semiotic This, of course, is a major reason why the film was denounced by Party authorities for wasting the resources of the State, and insulting “the working people in factories, in fields, and on construction sites.” As production was the highest value in all the socialist states, the general derision which Daisies pours on the very concept is actually more disturbing to official ideology than a more explicit, specific, and immediate criticism of the social system would have been.
There is one sequence in Daisies in which the two Maries watch a farmer watering his crops. He doesn’t notice them, despite their outlandish attire. They then stand in a square they are passed by a squad of bicyclists, probably workers going off to their work in a factory. Once again, nobody notices them. They start to wonder whether they even exist: obviously, there is no place for them in the world of “actually existing socialism.”
(It’s dubious whether they could exist in “actually existing capitalism” either. Their orgies of expenditure might be seen as a sort of consumerist excess, except that they never pay for anything. They steal money, but they never spend it. They have no regard for, and no sense of, property; no sense of material goods as a source of power or prestige. Their infantilism, unlike that of the capitalist consumer, unegotistical. They have no interest in possession and accumulation).
After the Maries destroy the State banquet, the film ends with their display of remorse, and punishment for their bad behavior. This formulaic recantation is done so sarcastically that it only further accentuates the film’s overall childish glee in pure waste and destruction. (Is it worth noting that, after the Soviet invasion of 1968, Chytilova and other Czech New Wave directors were similarly forced to make critiques and recantations of their work?) The Maries mumble their sorrow, and say that now they are happy to be socially useful, as they ostensibly put everything back in order: this involves putting the shards of broken plates back next to each other, and throwing handfuls of crumbs back together on large platters. Finally they lie down on the top of the banquet table, wearing body suits made of newspaper and papier mache, murmuring that they are finally at peace… until the room’s enormous chandelier falls from the ceiling and crushes them in a final swoosh of multicolored pixelation. Though Chytilova claimed, under political duress, that this was a moral punishment for the girls’ transgressions, it seems rather to extend their reign of destruction, consuming not only the two of them, but the film itself.
What’s great about Daisies is that, even as it revels in negativity and destruction, and even as its protagonists are motivated (to the extent that such language can be used in a film like this at all) by a kind of malaise, there is no sense of lack or incompletion here, no alienated subjectivity, no Lacanian not-all, no Mulveyesque dialectics and detachment, and even no Adornoesque revelation of the work’s own insufficiency — but only a joyous plenitude, an overabundance that is both affective and material, embodied in the sheer exuberance and formal inventiveness of the film itself.
The early modernist endeavor to align radical aesthetics with radical politics came to grief over the horrors of Stalinism, not to mention the ultra-conservative aesthetics of “socialist realism” that Stalin imposed. In post-War, post-Stalin, Communist Eastern Europe, Dusan Makavejev is nearly alone in endeavoring to renew the link between radical aesthetics and radical politics. Chytilova’s late modernist radical aesthetics doesn’t share any such project. It is explicitly, not just apolitical, but virulently antipolitical. Rather than simply affirming the rights of the individual against the collective — a move which would still be “political” in the conventional sense — Daisies obliterates both individual and collective in its fervidly antisocial jouissance. (The two Maries cannot exist without one another; their duality is as irreducible to any sort of heroic or existential solitude and individuality, as it is to any sort of social bond or collectivity). And this antipolitical virulence is precisely the film’s (crucial) political import: one that perhaps we need today, in our “connected” world of inescapable networks and ubiquitous commodification, as much as it was needed 40-odd years ago in the world of “actually existing socialism.”
What would a history of film, or of modernism, or of the avant-garde, or an account of strategies of resistance and evasion and refusal, that took proper and full account of Daisies look like?