Criterion Cuts: “Daisies”

Hello and welcome to the latest installment of Criterion Cuts, the weekly article where I dig into the archives of everyone’s favorite foreign/art house home video distribution company and unearth some obscurity and tell you just why it might be worth your time. As always, most of these come from the generous offerings available to Hulu Plus subscribers unless otherwise noted.

I’m kind of in the middle of some November wrap up and general life business, so I don’t have a big prelude for today’s entry. It’s a movie that my girlfriend loves, and kept insisting that I should watch, so like a good movie nerd and boyfriend I sat down and fired it up. Thoughts follow. Other than that, have a good Thanksgiving, as Criterion Cuts heads towards its final installments of a busy 2012!

Daisies (1966)

Talking about Daisies requires some background on what Czech New Wave cinema is. A movement of the 60s, it rose out of a desire of the artistic community of Czechoslovakia to rebel against the Communist government that had been in power since the 40s. That involved not only the typical political actions and protests, but a sense that the traditionalist art was inherently supportive of the regime. As artists, breaking rules and creating chaos were thus forms of a formal protest, even if they were apolitical on the face of it.

Which is what happened with director Věra Chytilová, who took the funds from a state-sponsored studio to make her own landmark (and in many ways the defining) film in this new form of artistic protest. The result was a movie that was banned by Czech authorities and lead to Chytilová being restricted from even working in Czechoslovakia until 1975. Talk about a significant reaction to a movie. Obviously it must be pretty extreme, something that would offend the sensibilities of nearly anyone. Right?

In actuality the thing that’s most interesting about Daisies is how playful it is for a film that generated so much controversy and became the stalwart of a movement of protest. Chytilová’s film isn’t angry, doesn’t contain an inordinate amount of violence or nudity (though we can talk about sex in a second), and it only brushes up against the idea of figures of authority and government in the most off-handed way in one of the final scenes of the film. So why the big hullabaloo? Because the truth is that Daisies dares not to question or oppose, but to ignore in favor of something fundamentally other.

The movie stars two unnamed women, played by Ivana Karbanová and Jitka Cerhová, who are introduced and spend the entirety of the movie being completely inseparable  They’re not just friends, they’re two sides of the same symbolic coin, a carefree woman who is made more carefree because the two of them remove the vulnerability inherent in isolation and cast them instead as a group representing more than a single person’s ideas. That the two of them always seem to operate as a single unit and rarely even disagree, much less have conflict, only furthers their signposting as more than just two friends.

The two of them cast about in 60s Czechoslovakia in the height of Communist decadence. They live in seeming poverty, but spend their time dressing up and going out to night clubs and parties in order to woo men, who they use to buy them dinner and nice things before dumping as quickly as they attached to them. They flit through this society, drinking and living in their own anarchic world where everyone is ridiculous and they only get funnier the more self-serious they get. These two women are chaos incarnate, creatures of pure id, who eat and drink and kiss and dream in a way that allows for nobody to say otherwise.

Most of the film consists of a series of scenarios in which they encounter various parts of this society and the comic upset that ensues, so there’s nothing insomuch as a narrative by a traditional understanding. If anything, the movie seems more like a collection of skits, sequences that all play out more or less the same way, even as the movie bounds to and fro in a sea of formal chaos. The closest we get to a plot is late in the movie when, hungry, they discover a feast that was undoubtedly meant for government officials on the top floor of a building they break into. They eat it, only to feel guilty when they trash the place, coming back to try to piece back together some sense of normalcy from the wreckage of plates and the spoiled food they left in their wake.

Thematically, that’s as much of a message as the movie has. And it’s a relatively simple message: people under oppressive governments will naturally lash out, and the lashing out will often be as bad as what the oppression entails, but that doesn’t make the rebellion bad. It’s simply human nature, and the tragedy is that when good intentions and decency reassert themselves there’s nothing that can actually be done. The damage was done, and extends backward far too long to ever be properly sorted out.

But just as important is the way the film is shot. Discarding conventions like sense and linearity, Daisies is as surreal as a movie can be given its relatively mundane subject matter. The movie swims in color palates, scenes shifting from blue to amber to black and white to brilliant color depending on anything from who’s speaking to random whim. Sound effects are inserted that in no way match the action. Time and space are divided by montage and jump cuts to have no meaning at all, as thoughts leap into one another as fast as possible. It’s not unlike Godard, though with seemingly much more playful intentions and far less anger inherent in how it goes about them.

In fact, the best sequence of the movie is a scissor fight the two women have, playfully snipping at each other. As they do, the film turns into a jumbled mess, as each frame is cut up and reassembled into a collage of image that barely retains any sense of actual logic aside from the giggling and the sound of scissors. Its that subjectivity, and bravery of composition, that typifies Daisies goals and thus eventual infamy. Because ultimately the answer to why this relatively innocent movie was so dangerous is answered by the movie itself: there’s nothing that so threatens fascism than freedom, especially when enjoyed without guilt or struggle by a group marginalized by those in power.

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About M

Artist, ne'er do well, militant queer.
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