The third in an ongoing series on the Cinema of the Teen Girl. Cover image “Daises” by Stephanie Monohan.
THIS FILM IS DEDICATED TO THOSE WHO GET UPSET ONLY OVER A STOMPED UPON BED OF LETTUCE
So concludes Vera Chytilová’s 1966 film Daisies, an eighty-minute opus for which she would be banned from filmmaking for years. Despite their approval of the script in pre-production, the Czech government didn’t take the hint, condemning the film for “depicting the wanton,” and worse, wasting food as props. Chytilová could not work in her home country for almost a decade.
Much has been written about Daisies as a political allegory that demands a feminist counter-reading to Chytilová’s own stated aims, but I am more interested in the film as a document of liminality, as a participatory act of revel and mockery. Its satire dwells in the unruly bodies of its teenage protagonists, Marie 1 and Marie 2, and the havoc they wreak on their environment in gleeful spite and boredom.
If Daisies is a teen movie, it is certainly not a coming of age tale. In her 1976 essay “I Want to Work,” Chytilová explains that “I chose as my heroines two young girls because it is at this age that one most wants to fulfill oneself and, if left to one’s own devices, his or her need to create can easily turn into its very opposite.” In the tempestuous spirit of adolescence, things do not happen to the two heroines so much as they happen to things. One day, they realize that they are only dolls (of society, of men, of their own carnality), and decide that since the world is spoiled, they must be spoiled too. They trample through city and countryside on kitten heels.
Their many episodic interactions with men are our first clue that film’s humor does not come totally at the expense of the girls, no matter how ridiculous they make themselves. An extended dinner scene between the girls and an older bourgeois gentleman wooer vacillates between cliches of seduction and broad comedy of manners, as Marie 1, to Marie 2’s barely stifled amusement, stuffs herself on his dime only to help her “sister” ditch him on the train. Instead of indulging his chivalric lechery, they mock his sexual frustration and entitlement, asking “how old is your lady?”
The Maries tear through men’s lives, and what do they care? The men they meet would only exchange money and regard for sex, even by force, if pushed. When a naked Marie 1 tries to put her clothes back on in the house of her young lover, a sensitive butterfly collector, he plucks a pinned butterfly (a Czech sexual symbol) from the frame she uses to cover her crotch, over her protests. Later, he leaves a long, self-indulgent message to her over the phone, waxing on about the tortures of love and calling her “Julie,” as the girls mash, chop, and fry various phallic foods in their room, laughing and eating.
The pranks the girls play enact role reversal via emasculation on their would-be worshippers and sugar daddies. The Maries do not embody their institutionalized roles as women under a socialist state, but rather, are guying them, pouting and posing and stomping from set piece to set piece. Their joy in their wickedness is hard not to share as viewers, even if Chytilová ends the film on an explicitly punitive note.
For the girls do not escape allegorical censure. The Maries flounder in a river and call for help as text blares from the screen:
THAT WAS THE ONLY WAY FOR THEM TO END UP, WAS THERE ANY OTHER WAY TO REMEDY THIS DESTRUCTION? EVEN IF THEY WERE GIVEN THE CHANCE, AT BEST IT WOULD LOOK LIKE THIS
Like the wild bender that carries the film to its end, their demise plays for laughs.
Chytilová would defend the film’s censorship on grounds of misreading, and has said in interviews that we should read the film as a condemnation of the Maries’ mindless self-centeredness and consumerism only. To her her tell it in “I Want to Work,” the Maries are “Parasites. Not only in relation to others, but also, and this is fundamental, in relation to themselves…We [the filmmakers] would like to unveil the futility of life in the erroneous circle of pseudo-relations and pseudo-values, which necessarily leads to the emptiness of vital forms, in the pose of either corruption, or of happiness.”
Still, the film does not seem to take the side of the state uncritically. Perhaps Chytilová felt political and ideological pressure to refocus the legacy of her work, and far be it from me to debate her intentions. We do not remember Daisies for its propagandistic rhetoric. Instead, the film’s pleasures reside in its cathartic excesses, its delicious, ironic subversion. If the Maries must die by being crushed by a chandelier, then so be it– they had their fun, and as they said themselves, they were only the spoiled children of a spoiled world.
In some ways, Daisies amounts to a comedy roast of the patriarchal state– the target is huge and immovable and deserving of everything he gets, but his loud-mouthed critics must take on a certain degree of culpability in play, in order to earn the license to say what we all think. Perhaps it is this radical disingenuousness, as film theorist Bliss Cua Lim puts it, that lodges the film between cautionary tale and anarchic cartoon. No matter the happy instability of its form, we can consume Daisies as breathlessly as the Maries with their cake and Johnny Walker, to hell with the consequences.
Caroline Fulford is a data librarian, podcaster, and writer based in Brooklyn. She has been known to get emotional on the internet. Listen to The Loose Canon Podcast, her interview show about personal histories of film, here or here.
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