Mod Madness from Vera Chytilová’s New Wave Daisies


Marie I and Marie II, the unholy-fool heroines of Vera Chytilová’s anarchic Czech New Wave 1966 classic, Daisies, have insatiable appetites: not just for pickles, sausages, bananas, and other suggestively shaped food, but for mayhem in general. Similarly, Daisies, a dada, gaga series of high jinks, oral fixations, and aggressive regression, devours the borders between sense and nonsense. Matching the lunacy of her characters, the formal elements of Chytilová’s movie, which BAMcinématek is showing in a new 35mm print for a week-long run, also suggest liberating disorder. A riot of technical tricks, Daisies shifts between color, black-and-white, and tinted images and includes a scene in which the two Maries, wielding scissors, essentially turn themselves into paper dolls.

Chytilová’s second feature, Daisies was originally planned as a send-up of bourgeois decadence; the director herself referred to it as “a necrologue about a negative way of life.” Yet, too freewheeling and unclassifiable, the film, which Chytilová co-wrote with Ester Krumbachová, gooses anyone hung up on rules: Daisies is dedicated “to those who get upset only over a stomped-upon bed of lettuce.”

Born in 1929 and the only female enrolled at the prestigious Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague in 1957, Chytilová devilishly flouts one of cinema’s most sacrosanct tenets: creating sympathetic characters. “We’re supposed to be spoiled, aren’t we?” Marie I (Jitka Cerhová), distinguished by her ponytails and Bardot-ish moue, says to Marie II (Ivana Karbanová), who often wears a crown of the titular flowers atop her strawberry blond bowl cut. The two actresses, both nonprofessionals—Cerhová was a student and Karbanová a salesclerk at the time; both would appear in a handful of films afterward—erupt in Woody Woodpecker–like laughs, their maniacal giggles belying the stealth radicals they’re portraying. Think a Laugh-In-era Goldie Hawn on a subversive mission behind the Iron Curtain times two.

Marie I and II—who might just as well be called Thing 1 and Thing 2 for the chaos they create—tease and trick with the faint promise of sex distinguished-looking elderly gentlemen into paying for expensive meals at restaurants until one of the women decides “this isn’t fun anymore.” Other hobbies include pyromania, rolling down grassy hills, and amateur linguistics (“Why does one say ‘I love you’? Why doesn’t one say ‘egg’?”). Their antics, purposefully wearying, reach maximum pandemonium during a gluttonous episode that soon becomes an orgiastic food fight. These two slim, mod beauties revel in their infantile defilement before swinging from chandeliers and catwalking down the buffet table.

But Czech censors weren’t amused and banned Daisies for “food wastage.” After the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, Chytilová, who unlike compatriot Milos Forman, refused to relocate to the West, was prohibited from making films until the mid ’70s (though her Daisies follow-up, We Eat the Fruit of the Trees of Paradise, was released briefly in her native country in 1969 before being pulled from theaters). Daisies has been praised as a feminist triumph—a claim that the director has been loath to embrace. In a tetchy interview with The Guardian in 2000, Chytilová stressed that she preferred “individualism” to “feminism.” “If there’s something you don’t like, don’t keep to the rules—break them. I’m an enemy of stupidity and simplemindedness in both men and women, and I have rid my living space of these traits.” The pretty nitwits at the center of her most famous film bear out her philosophy.