Daisies (An American’s Guide to Czech Movies)
Věra Chytilová’s Daisies defies questions like “what the fuck is this?” It is simply unlike anything else in world cinema. I’ve watched films from every continent on the planet and cannot think of a single movie that compares to Daisies. It’s anarchic, ebullient and ruthlessly itself. In an era of petulantly formalist films, its blend of medium-breaking collages, jump-cuts and percussionist staccato soundtrack stands alone as a crowning achievement of drastic bizarreness.
Yet this hour-and-16-minute chronicle of two women wreaking havoc in Prague is, in its own way, profoundly accessible and grounded. Yes, this is a film that starts with a montage of naval warfare, followed by two girls, Marie I and Marie II, declaring that “if the world is bad, then we are going bad as well.” It’s a cry against the ugliness of war. Yet it’s ultimately about the tumultuous journey of two girls failing to understand adulthood in a world that expects them to achieve it off the bat, a fact bolstered by its lack of professional actors in its lead roles. And like The Firemen’s Ball, it broadly relies on non-professional actors (its leads are played by a schoolgirl and a shop clerk).
More than many Czech New Wave films, Daisies benefits from the viewer knowing a spot of Czech. My Czech is far from proficient, but its simple dialogue, which replicates the speech patterns and worldview of children, was often clear to me even before I read the subtitles. But more importantly, there’s wordplay in the film that’s easily missed in English. In Czech, Ivana Karbanová’s line “I am a virgin” is “já jsem panna”, ending with a noun that can mean “virgin” or “doll.” The duo’s catchphrase, where one says “vadí?”, to which the other replies “nevadí”, meaning “do you care?” And “I don’t care” refers to a Czech children’s game. “Daisies is fundamentally childlike: a film that plays with adult ideas in adolescent terms.
“We are going bad as well” is an adolescent declaration of war against a disorienting world. The world is burning, so let’s burn it more. And the film follows suit: aesthetically, Daisies operates like the play-acting young girls it follows. It plays with the medium of film, mixing analogue effects, strange montages and color grading. When the Maries are home in their apartment, the film adopts color, portraying the girls’ world as vibrant and lively. When the Maries take on false identities to troll lonely older men over dinner, Daisies often switches to sepia or black-and-white, turning into a Buster Keatonesque comedy of manners. Just take the scene where the Maries run with an old man towards a train, hopping on board it, and then trade places with the old man. It feels like something out of The General or Modern Times. And that’s before we get to the Maries deploying a Burroughsian cut-up technique to each other, where they use scissors to cut each other apart, while their animated body parts occupy a different part of the frame, before the film devolves into a flashy montage of percussionist snipping set to bits of the frame clashing against each other.…