“I want to be the girl with the most cake.” — Courtney Love
“People will not be human until they get pleasure from thought.” — Věra Chytilová
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Thirty years before alt-rocker Courtney Love conflated superlative female appetites with tiara-tossing fury, Věra Chytilová’s Daisies (1966) crammed as many pastries, tarts, and creampuffs as could fit the screen — each exuberantly consumed by her movie’s heroines, bite after messy, righteous bite. Swap the tiara for a flower crown, and you have one half of the Maries (Jitka Cerhová and Ivana Karbanová): two teens with a penchant for turning tedium into mayhem in matching kitten heels. “Everything’s going bad in this world,” the girls deadpan throughout the film. By logical extension, they should be bad, too, which means finding as many ways to indulge as possible.
With its recent 4k restoration, the Czech filmmaker’s debut endures as a New Wave masterpiece and hyper-feminine smorgasbord of sensory pleasure. It is also, arguably, the rare feminist film that has its political cake and playfully eats it too. “You’re not registered here, you don’t work,” the brunette tells the blond from a steaming milk bath. “There is no proof you exist.” In a way, Daisies is an attempt to prove that they do, that their girlish antics can disrupt the bureaucratic, patriarchal order.
The opening black and white title sequence sets the stage, making cheeky use of the Kuleshov effect to confer a masculinist tone and gravity. Iron gears spinning onscreen cut to and from documentary footage of aerial bombings; in jarring disjunction to this rhythmic militarism, the next scene presents the eponymous “daisies” as two dolls seated on a picnic blanket, leaning against a wooden fence. Clad in strapless bikinis, their legs stretched into stiff Vs, the girls open their kohl-rimmed eyes as if to cue the movie’s launch. “I can’t even do this,” the pigtailed Marie bemoans, after tooting a horn to call her partner, and us, to attention. “We can’t do anything,” she declares a few moments later, another refrain that, throughout the film, reinforces their nihilistic awareness of their lack of agency.
As poised as they often deliberately appear, much of Daisies delights in knocking propriety — and traditional feminine virtue — off its sacred shelf. “What are you doing?,” one Marie asks when her friend brings her knees together. “Being a virgin,” she replies. “I look like a virgin, don’t I?” From here the two face each other, a drum roll rising in the background, as one slaps the other from black and white into a color scene set in a field of flowers.
Cutting back and forth between bucolic locales, urban passageways, and the frilly interior of their shared flat, Daisies revels in the wild extent to which its pranksters make an absurdist playground out of Prague and its surrounding countryside — cajoling clueless older men along the way to foot the bill. What looks like unapologetic indolence in one scene shifts to peripatetic energy in the next: the Maries gallivant through cornfields, train tunnels, and the pier, and convert a Punch and Judy nightclub booth into their own exhibitionist theater.
In lieu of male approval or the prospect of hetero romance, food remains the girls’ ultimate objective, at times overtly lampooning the erotic appeal of the male sexual appendage. Halfway through the film, as a lovestruck young man croons words of affection over the phone, the Maries chomp sausages, spear pickles, snip bananas out of their peels straight into their mouths. As opera music swells in the background, their ardent slicing, dicing, and swallowing of edible phalluses serves to symbolically castrate the man on the other line. “Now I know what love is …,” he professes, to which his supposed beloved responds, “Another piece of meat?,” poking her friend’s exposed belly with a fork.
Rejecting both linear narrative and social realism, Daisies deflowers staid notions of Soviet-era filmmaking just as it giddily subverts the notion that a movie about giggly teenage girls cannot be serious. No matter Chytilová’s claim that Daisies was intended as a “moral fable,” part of what is so fetching about this film today is that its anarchic ladies nearly get away with it all. “Let’s lay out a banquet!” one says to another, stumbling upon a lavish spread in a hotel ballroom at the film’s climax. In what is perhaps the best food fight to ever catch light on celluloid, by the scene’s end no chandelier, curtain, or tablecloth remains unscathed. “Does it matter?” one asks the other, lifting a broken chalice. “No, it doesn’t matter,” is the reply, as ever.
Equating their own performative vapidity with the lack of substance in both public and personal spheres, the Maries throw into merry relief the trivial roles to which women and girls were, and — to some extent — still are limited. “We’re really happy!” the friends declare, side by side at the end. In its irreverent celebration of excessive indulgence and unruly pleasure, Daisies may be remembered less for its immediate censorship by the Czech government than its prescient anticipation of hyper-femme voices in feminist discourse today.
Daisies is playing at the IFC Center (323 6th Avenue, Greenwich Village, Manhattan) through September 8.