Freedom’s just another word for making fun of everything
by Brannavan Gnanalingham
It can be hard to determine whether art is merely reflective of the wider society at large, or whether it influences a change in society. While it’s always hard to prove, for the most part it’ll mostly be the latter. However, a moment in film history in which the films arguably helped kick-start the revolution was the Czechoslovak New Wave in the 1960s. Paradoxically, Some of the most revolutionary films of the 20th Century came from the most repressed societies – and in particular the Soviet Bloc, in which countries like Hungary, the Soviet Union, Poland and East Germany made some remarkably inventive and challenging films, in direct opposition to the political preferences of Film Boards and the censors. Czechoslovakia stood out, as its films preceded and in many ways informed the Prague Spring, a brief moment in which censorship was removed and the arts took the lead in driving the revolution, but which was brutally put down by the invading Soviets in 1968.
Czechoslovakia never really had much of a film reputation in the early days of cinema, and its most notable export was the scandalous Hedy Lamarr film Extase (1933). Outside of a few classic animated films, Czechoslovak cinema in the ‘60s never really had the reputation of many of its Continental European peers. However, a sudden burst of talent, fostered in the film studios and taking advantage of an increased liberalisation and explosion of nationalist literature, led to a whole series of wonderful films. Filmmakers like Miloš Forman (Loves of a Blonde, The Firemen’s Ball), who would later win Oscars with films like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus or Jan Nĕmec (A Report On The Party and The Guests, Diamonds of the Night) gained international reputations which assisted when they were forced to leave Czechoslovakia. Other films like Jiří Menzel’s Closely Observed Trains and Ján Kadár’s Shop on Main Street won Foreign Film Oscars, an award usually reserved for staid, safe films (though it’s perhaps telling that these two were two of the more conservative films from the movement). Other films, like Štefan Uher’s The Sun in a Net or Marketa Lazarová by František Vláčil have since gathered hardcore aficionado reputations.
However, one of the most original and brilliant films to emerge from the Czechoslovak New Wave was Vĕra Chytilová’s 1966 film Daisies. The fact the film was banned in Czechoslovakia (and derided by then-Communist Jean-Luc Godard) for its “decadent” anti-Communist content and derided by Western critics for its shallowness and superficiality perhaps illustrates that it nailed its targets. And to watch its almost naïve Dadaism these days is to find that it hasn’t really dated at all, that its revolutionary streak which takes pot-shots at everything from authority to the falsity of ‘realism’ still takes aim at targets alive and well today.
The film follows two protagonists, both named Marie (it’s more than one reference to Samuel Beckett in the film) who travel around contemporary Prague playing pranks on unsuspecting men (such as sugar daddies and smooth seducers). The girls don’t have an identity, and their interchangeability suggests a repressed identity. Gender stereotypes not only constrict them, but their destructive ennui is explicitly created by such treatment. It’s only natural that people would then react against such conformity. The porous narrative matches the girls’ identities: the Maries run amok, cutting phallic objects with glee, destroying feasts (presumably belonging to Communist masters, in a cruel updating of Luis Buñuel’s Viridiana) until they’re destroyed by a falling chandelier. It’s a failed revolution, fun while it lasted but with deadly consequences: and in many ways predicted the freewheeling nature of the Prague Spring and the ensuing backlash.
The Maries reacted against any sort of essentialised or inherent notion of gender. They make fun of everything from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil to stereotypes about women’s legs to butterflies (frequently a metaphor for sexuality in Czech literature) to the expectation that women should go out on dates with men (the Maries eat and leave before the ‘pay-off’), to the point where ridiculing them makes what is considered so natural within society inherently silly.
The filmmaking matches the anarchic storyline: it’s an avant-garde text-book with colour changes, jump cuts, camera tricks and the use of found footage. The film breaks free of any pretence of realism, as it tries to constantly confound the audiences’ trust in what’s going on the screen. The image is constantly shown to be unreliable (Chytilová happily cuts off her character’s head leaving the body to interact with the other Marie, gets into an extreme close-up to render a complex image a flat 2-d one, or interrupts an image with a piece of found footage). Sound and the image don’t match, if openly contradicting each other.
It’s so riotous, you could see authorities banning this film for being dangerous (which it was until 1975 in Czechoslovakia) as they knew something was going on, but wouldn’t have been able to figure out exactly what. Its refusal to situate itself within standard film narratives and techniques was also revolutionary – it was so unlike anything else before it, that few films have even come close to matching its chutzpah (the closest would the films that would be made in Yugoslovia soon afterwards by the likes of Dušan Makavajev).
Daisies, as a result, cheerfully critiques notions of conformity, individualism, consumerism, authoritarianism, censorship and repression, to the point where it explains why the film was derided from all sides. The open slather mockery on all things considered holy wasn’t as nihilistic as it may seem. Underneath it all, Chytilová accepts the meaninglessness of the world, but derides societies which are unable to acknowledge that it is meaningless. The first step to change simply is to deconstruct that which is considered truthful. Her resulting contribution to post-modernism, avant-garde, and Situationist ethics have largely been overlooked or underrated – but the recent release of her work on DVD should hopefully assist in publicising her work.
The treatment of authority got Chytilová into trouble. Her filmmaking reputation largely rests on her ‘60s work, and she never managed to get the same freedom to really cut loose as Daisies shows she was capable of doing. Yet it’s also a type of film which probably could never have been made anywhere else. It needed the repression that it was fighting against (Herzog for example once said, to paraphrase him loosely, that repression is needed for great art) in order to create the film’s spirit and zeal. But it also needed to believe in the freedom that it was fighting for, the type of freedom that Chytilová and her colleagues briefly got following their films but, like the Maries, lasted all too briefly.