Breaking the Rules

Daisies, by Věra Chytilová

Czech filmmaker Věra Chytilová’s insisted that her remarkable 1966 film Daisies was a critique of decadence, personified in the young women, both named Marie, who are its protagonists. 

Communists as hedonists. Daisies, 1966.

But when the strawberry blonde-haired one (Ivana Karbanová) calls herself a liar, her brunette companion (Jitka Cerhová) replies, “That’s nothing. Everyone does that. No one can tell.”

This conversation points us in the direction of paradox. If everyone lies, what does it mean to declare oneself a liar?

Considering that both the form and content of Daisies are persistently ironic, Chytilová was surely aware of this conversation’s implications. 

If her film is a critique of decadence, then, it’s assuredly a self-critique, since she is as profligate with her filmmaking as the two Maries are with food, frequently wasting brilliant ideas on shots so short that they can only be appreciated with freeze-frame technology that didn’t become widely available to consumers until many years after the picture’s release.

Few films benefited more from being reissued on DVD than Daisies, which could finally be recognised for the depth of its craftsmanship — many scenes feel like art installations — in addition to the superficial provocations that initially dominated the picture’s reception, such as the many scenes featuring its anti-heroines in states of near-undress that must have been downright shocking for the dour bureaucrats of communist Czechoslovakia.

The switching up of film stocks, surreal use of colour, and special effects employed by Chytilová and her cinematographer — and husband – Jaroslav Kučera; the inventive costumes devised by her co-screenwriter Ester Krumbachová; and the unconventional use of non-diegetic sound, such as a persistent ticking: all these serve the same function as the nubile bodies that disport themselves in one scene after another.

Chytilová uses these sleights of hand to deceive, distracting audiences in order to hide potentially serious details in plain sight. The point was to prevent the film from being blocked whether by the external censors of the state or the internal censors of moviegoers themselves.

In other words, Daisies is a film that lies in order to tell the truth.

The reason is obvious. Even though Czechoslovakia was experiencing a cultural thaw when Daisies was made, one which would eventually culminate in the Prague Spring of 1968, it was still run like other Warsaw Pact states, managed from the top down by party leaders and their bureaucratic functionaries. 

Although artists might have felt freer than they were in the previous decade, they still confronted a system that treated them as servants of the state, one which made itself felt in both large and small ways. 

Within this political environment, a film about two carefree young women thumbing their noses at authority could only pass muster if it was presented as a stern repudiation of their behaviour. 

Perhaps Věra Chytilová truly intended for audiences to regard her story as a cautionary tale about youth gone astray. 

But even if she secretly wanted audiences to identify with her anti-heroines — and identified with them herself – Chytilová could not have admitted it without consigning Daisies to the purgatory of banned art. Or, after Daisies was finally “disappeared” in the wake of the Soviet invasion that ended the Prague Spring, preventing herself from releasing new films.

That’s why appreciating the film’s greatness requires that we bracket her statements about it and pay close attention to what it is actually doing.

Perhaps Chytilová’s most impressive achievement was to make an excessive film about excessive people that still feels too short. Daisies manages to be consistently captivating, despite its relative plotlessness. 

Sequences that pass in a blink of an eye linger in the memory, contributing to a conceptual continuity that balances the film’s formal discontinuity. 

About a third of the way into the film, blonde Marie puts on an olive dress in preparation for meeting up with a man. She then takes an unruly swig from a milk bottle. “You’ve spilled milk on your breasts,” declares brunette Marie. “But you still look smart.” 

After Marie walks out the door, however, this lighthearted banter is undercut by a close-up of the brunette lying on the bed with a faraway look in her eyes, seemingly troubled.

Is it just that she finds the prospect of being alone boring? Or is there more to this ruminative expression?

We have no sense of either Marie’s past or how they spend their time when not bedevilling men. But we can still collect enough information, if we concentrate, to reach a conclusion about this sequence that contradicts the impression that the two women regard everyone and everything as a joke.

By this point, we have witnessed the brunette’s strategy for getting rid of male suitors once they have outlasted their usefulness to her. She invites her roommate to join her when she is dining out with the man, then mimics her increasingly outrageous behaviour. 

When we eventually see blonde Marie dealing with a similar situation, however, she does not enlist her companion’s help. 

We go on to learn from a phone conversation that they both can hear — the receiver lies on the bed between them — that she spent the night alone with this man, something that brunette Marie seems to go out of her way to avoid. 

Later, we see the two of them out by the river. At first, they simply appear to be engaged in another one of their many madcap pursuits, drinking from extremely long straws as they enjoy the fine weather. Then blonde Marie speaks.

“I don’t like you anymore,” she declares. Brunette Marie answers, “Nor I you,” seemingly striving for the nonchalant delivery of their usual banter. 

This time, though, we don’t get the kind of surreal shift of topic we’ve come to expect from them. Instead, blonde Marie doubles down. 

“But I mean it,” she flatly states. “Really.” Then, to drive the point home even harder, she adds, “Not anymore. I don’t like you at all.” And she gets up and walks away.

Although the two women reunite in the following scene and stay together for the duration of the film, the opening of this rift between them reinforces an impression, clearly perceptible for someone who isn’t distracted by the film’s superficial button-pushing, that their bond goes beyond simple friendship.

After all, as brunette Marie makes clear, blonde Marie has been living rent-free in her apartment. When she fails to show up at one of her brunette companion’s staged break-ups with an older man, the latter’s feelings of betrayal are obvious. Although they depend on each other, their respective situations are not symmetrical.

Another sequence in Daisies – the one I mention at the beginning of this piece — reinforces, if very subtly, this thematisation of a same-sex bond that transcends mere friendship.

Before I explain why, however, I want to make it clear that this isn’t the main point of the film. Chytilová has other concerns. 

What I want to argue, rather, is that her oblique treatment of this sensitive topic — one which would almost certainly have gotten the film banned if it were more explicit — functions to alert us to the possibility that it might be hiding other messages in plain sight.

This is significant both in relation to the original context in which the film was produced and distributed — one that required artists to think allegorically —  and to our own times. Because we now live in a world where communicating anything directly puts people at risk, no matter how free they believe their society to be.

Returning to the film, the sequence I mentioned at the beginning of this piece begins when the two Maries have a strange interaction in a washroom, shot in cool black and white. 

While they are sitting along the back wall, someone in an eye-catching print dress walks in. Although dressed in a stereotypically feminine way, this person’s short hair and mannerisms impart an androgynous air.

As this person adjusts their dress, which is slit all the way down the back, and checks their make-up, we see our protagonists scrutinising them as if they were critiquing a performance.

Although neither the two Maries nor this person open their mouths, we hear a voice, barely above a whisper, say, “Look. An angel. And she’s not flying.”

When the person in the dress turns towards our protagonists, unnerved, we can see blonde Marie on the far right of the frame, returning their gaze intently, with a touch of malice, while we are also able to see both her face and that of brunette Marie reflected in the mirror on the other side of the frame.

When this scene ends, we cut to the two Maries, now in colour, shot from the waist down. They are walking up a red-carpeted staircase, but the image is distorted, as if we were seeing their movement reflected in a fun-house mirror.

This brief shot then gives way to a longer sepia-toned sequence in a nightclub. 

The two Maries are again located along the back wall. The blonde one is to the right of a jukebox, while the brunette drapes over it from the left side, both her arms resting on top. Her right arm clutches a diaphanous scarf that also appears in colour scenes elsewhere in the film, where it is black with blue accents. 

Continuity with the washroom scene is established by the pile of coins on top of the jukebox, which blonde Marie previously removed from a drawer next to the mirror after the person in the print dress left the washroom. 

The scene begins with brunette Marie musing that they stole from an acquaintance who went to get sugar for their coffee, only to have blonde Marie reply, “What do you mean, we? I did.” 

Brunette Marie then tells blonde Marie that this makes her a thief, which the other woman cheerfully agrees with. 

For the duration of the scene, which includes the conversation about lying I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, blonde Marie remains preoccupied with her companion, seemingly oblivious to her surroundings. But brunette Marie pays them increasingly careful attention.

Interspersed with their conversation are brief shots of the nightclub. We see a bartender, who presents as a short-haired woman in stereotypically male attire. Then we see close-ups of two men, their faces very close together as if dancing arm in arm. We see another shot of the bar, with the bartender in the foreground and two men sitting on stools on the other side. 

Finally, we see brunette Marie standing in front of a large painting that depicts a nude woman lying on rocks in the sea, presumably Aphrodite. Brunette Marie’s arms extend outward, almost as if she were about to lift the painting, while her right hand continues to clutch the scarf.

Altogether, this entire sequence, from the washroom through the stairs to the nightclub, barely exceeds two minutes. Because nothing overtly memorable happens, a distracted viewer might not remember anything about it. Yet it contains a wealth of meaningful detail.

It matters, for example, that the shot-reverse-shot logic implies that brunette Marie is subjecting the male couple in the nightclub to the same type of scrutiny that she and blonde Marie direct toward the person in the washroom. 

It matters that the nightclub scene plays with discontinuity editing, showing us brunette Marie in the distance, standing next to the jukebox, with her right arm and the scarf at her side, as one of the men walks out of the room, even though we see her leaning on the jukebox in the exact same position before and after that extremely brief shot. 

And it matters most of all that brunette Marie’s statement about lying — “Everyone does that. No one can tell” — comes right after the shots of the male couple embracing.

In a society where such relationships were regarded as a sign of bourgeois decadence, everything Czechoslovakia’s communist government supposedly stood against, this ever-so-brief confirmation that not all love is heterosexual performed a contradictory function.

On the one hand, the fact that our decadent protagonists are spending time in such questionable company could have indicated that Daisies was making the ideologically correct move. 

If its protagonists are depraved, it would only make sense that they are drawn to the depravity of others.

On the other hand, however, the fact that they seem to be casting judgment on people who deviate from normal gender stereotypes might have temporarily imbued them with a moral authority which their behaviour otherwise repudiates.

But identifying with them in this instance would undermine the impulse to identify them as bad role models elsewhere. If we are supposed to feel sympathy for the victims of their pranks, shouldn’t we instead identify with the individuals they are judging?

Further complicating matters is the fact that this short sequence makes a clear distinction between the two Maries. In the washroom, blonde Marie’s expression seems outright mean, whereas brunette Marie merely looks bemused. Then, in the nightclub, blonde Marie rejects her companion’s use of the first-person plural when she declares “What do you mean, we?” and thereby assumes sole responsibility for the theft. Finally, brunette Marie seems invested in the male couple, perhaps wondering whether they have arranged to meet up later, whereas blonde Marie, although she might be contemptuous of the nightclub’s clientele in general, does not seem to notice anything specific.

This short sequence demonstrates why Chytilová’s statements about the film failed to do it justice. When we pay close attention, as brunette Marie in the nightclub, we inevitably notice details that undermine the notion that it provides such a neat-and-tidy moral.

Decadence is so pervasive in Daisies that we lose our bearings, made to identify both with its two protagonists and against them.

One of the film’s most famous scenes, which did run afoul of the censors, occurs at the end of the picture. In it, the two Maries discover a luxurious chamber set up for an elaborate banquet. It doesn’t take them long to start sampling the dishes. Within minutes, they have moved on to wanton destruction, hurling food, stomping on the table like toddlers, and hanging from the chandelier.

This behaviour eventually leads to our protagonists’ narrative punishment, as they are summarily dropped, surrealistically, into a body of water, then returned to the room wearing newspaper dresses, where they make a half-hearted attempt to clean up the mess they left behind. 

We hear a voice-over supposedly conveying their satisfaction at being able to make things right. The chandelier they had been hanging from before falling into the water drops from the ceiling and we hear bombs going off to the accompaniment of footage showing destruction from the Second World War.

Then, seemingly typed on the screen to the staccato of machine-gun fire, we are given the film’s last words: “This film is dedicated to all those whose sole source of indignation is a trampled-on trifle.”

The wastefulness our protagonists demonstrate stares us in the face. But it is only possible because they live in a society which, despite its pretence to equality, still reserves luxuries for a privileged few. 

Who, after all, would have been able to attend such a banquet in the Czechoslovakia of the mid-1960s, when even highly trained professionals were expected to dine in public cafeterias? Who would have been able to procure Western commodities like Johnny Walker Scotch? 

The answer is implicit in the film’s final statement.

If our protagonists act decadently, then, it’s not because they are in love with each other or love to be around other people deemed “deviant”, but because they know that they live in a society that falls far short of its ideals and which, moreover, manages to benefit a privileged few as a consequence. 

This is a message as pertinent today as it was then, despite the demise of communist Europe. And it’s also a message in danger of being censored, when negative comments about the rich and powerful are regularly suppressed in the name of content moderation.

To be sure,
Daisies struggles to make the impact that it did when the film was first released. In particular, the use of rapid cutting and discontinuous editing, so daring in the mid-1960s, no longer achieve much of an estrangement effect. 

Even viewers nearing retirement age know these techniques from the music videos they watched in their youth. And younger audiences are likely to regard them as standard-issue storytelling.

Even if Daisies avoids being dismissed for being too slow or boring, as older films tend to be, its capacity to provoke an intense response has thereby been diminished. Indeed, pictures that are more formally conservative might actually have an easier time of breaking through contemporary moviegoers’ mental barriers, since long takes and patient exposition now seem almost radical. 

But this doesn’t mean we should ignore Daisies simply because its risk-taking no longer feels so bold. On the contrary, even if the buttons it pushed in the 1960s have been worn out by overuse, it still has plenty to teach us, just as the early films of Jean-Luc Godard do.

In one sense, the historical context in which Daisies was made has become remote. It has been over three decades since Communist Europe was consigned to the dustbin of history. 

While music and fashion have kept alive the cultural ferment of the 1960s to a greater extent than more recent times, remembering how and why it emerged during the height of the Cold War is difficult for people who lived through those tumultuous years to remember, much less those of us who have only been able to access that period through secondhand nostalgia.

But there are also surprising similarities between then and now. From a geopolitical perspective, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s crackdown on liberal tendencies have returned us to a state of constant anxiety about the fate of the West and the ideals it continues to stand for, however imperfectly.

More subtly, the migration of everyday life to digital realms has made all people, no matter how many liberties they enjoy, subject to arbitrary decisions made by shadowy entities. Freedom of expression is undermined by both the global corporations that manage the platforms of the used-to-be-public sphere and by poorly conceived regulations designed to constrain their power.

We need to look back to the culture produced in authoritarian regimes of the past in order to understand how to sustain critique in the authoritarian regimes of the present and future. A film like Daisies, which does such a good job of hiding messages in plain sight, is a great place to start.

In other words, Daisies can teach us how to use excess for both aesthetic and political ends. 

The wastefulness that marks both its protagonists and director as decadent appears quite different once we realise that only a film full of details that serve no purpose beyond themselves could manage to communicate subversive messages without getting blocked.

As we confront the very real prospect that our already constrained freedom of expression will soon be further compromised by both governments and corporations, figuring out ways to circumvent censorship will become increasingly important. 

After all, they are already essential in authoritarian regimes like China, Russia, and Iran, where the protest movement recently begun by young women has aspects that strongly call Daisies to mind. 

Screenshot courtesy of Criterion Collection. All rights reserved.