Daisies (Sedmikrásky, 1966)

Director: Věra Chytilová

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

I’ve read numerous summaries of Daisies, a seminal film of the Czech New Wave, as well as a few analyses, and I must say that I feel rather dissatisfied with all of them. Among the many labels attached to this film is that it is feminist. I’ve mulled this experimental piece of pop art quite a bit, and darn if I can find anything particularly feminist about it. I guess that’s just a boilerplate assumption about movies directed by women. Certainly, if I had to characterize the approach Chytilová takes with this film, it would be feminine, not feminist. She’s a delightful, spirited girl who likes nothing better than to misbehave. She scribbles all over her coloring book, imaginatively making things the wrong color, and moves her “dolls” through various pretend-to-be-adult games, like going on a date with father, having grown-up drinks in a nightclub, and being a beautiful woman with whom all men fall in love.

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The film opens with an aerial view of bombed-out buildings, then moves in on a machine grinding through its gears. Two sisters, Jezinka (Ivana Karbanová) and Jarmila (Jitka Cerhová), sitting in bikinis against a wall, move mechanically with machinelike sounds emanating from each bending joint and wonder what to do. They get up and walk through a very green thicket to a large tree hung with brightly colored fruit. Each pulls a piece of fruit off the tree and chows down. The girls then head into the world for a series of madcap adventures.

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Jezinka is at a restaurant with an elegant older man, when Jarmila comes in and makes herself at home. She orders with abandon and eats like a horse. The old gentleman is taken aback by Jezinka’s sister, but tries to be polite. Jezinka worries about her train. The trio race to the train station and play a game of Chinese fire drill. The train carries the man off without Jezinka. The sisters are gleeful at pulling this trick off, but Jezinka worries that Jarmila will tell that she goes around with old men. The pair pulls this stunt several times in scenes Mack Sennett would have been proud to include in his Keystone Kops comedies.

The girls go to a nightclub, entering through a backstage door and disrupting the tango dancers on stage. They take a booth, start drinking, and begin jumping up and down in their box (surely a trampoline is hidden below), while the dancers glare at them and soldier on to the end of their act. The drunken sisters are escorted out and go home.

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“It’s so nice to be home,” they say, using one of several cliched lines that pop up throughout the film. Their home looks like a little girls’ room, with pictures pasted on the walls. Paper streamers and apples are strewn about. They paint their eyes with long slashes of a paint brush, the kind of improvised make-up kit girls would use to be like Mommy.

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Jarmila goes out on a date. She enters her date’s room, which is covered wall to wall with butterfly specimens. Jarmila removes her clothes and holds two cases, one with two butterflies and the other with one, over her breasts and genital area. She moves coyly across the room when the man plucks the lower butterfly out of its frame. He whispers words of love as he does so. Jarmila runs back home with the words echoing around her as she sits with Jezinka on their bed. We can imagine the echo comes from all of the “butterflies” in the man’s collection, and Jarmila is completely unmoved by them in her remembrance. Nonetheless, she takes a pair of scissors and cuts Jezinka’s dress to pieces, saying, “You don’t mind, do you?” This line is repeated several times until they light the contents of their home on fire in an aggressive scene of destruction.

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The climax of the film is the food orgy. The sisters smuggle themselves up a dumbwaiter into a banquet hall resplendent with elegant and exotic dishes and proceed to eat, throw food at each other, and smash dishes with abandon. After this epic food fight, they end up swinging on the crystal chandelier hanging above the table. They suddenly must repair everything they have broken, placing pieces of dishes together like a mosaic and piling cakes back into something like the shape they started in. The busy-bee buzzing of the voices of the girls working at this pathetic repair are frantic, mechanical, with the film speeded up. When they finish their task, they lay down in the center of the banquet table. The chandelier comes crashing down on them, and we switch to another aerial view of carpet bombing.

Daisies%20cut.jpgDaisies is the kind of film that just sweeps one along in its antic merriment. The eye-popping cinematography and editing of Jaroslav Kucera and Miroslav Hájek, respectively, are a dazzling array of color, super-quick cutting, and strong close-ups that envelop the viewer in the detail of the moment. One scene, in which the sisters cut each other with scissors, is a riot of floating heads, limbs, and torsos. Karbanová, as the dark-haired sister, seems slightly more demure than Cerhová, her daisy-crowned sister, who subtly acts as the leader of the pair. Her playful sexual awakening seems to unleash a certain aggression, escalating to the banquet scene–a painful act of destruction that is, nonetheless, a lot of fun to watch. I felt very happy to spend time with these girls.

The Czech government was not at all amused, however, wondering how public funds could be thrown away on “trash” that made no sense. They also didn’t like the display of wasted food. Chytilová was unable to make films for years until she wrote an impassioned and lengthy letter vowing her dedication to socialist principles and explaining that the film was meant to show how small acts of destruction can build up and create an atmsophere in which greater destruction can take place. Well, this is one way to look at it, and since she’s the director, I guess she ought to know. What I tend to think is that she let the genie out of the bottle, bringing vibrance and life to what had become a drab existence under Communism. Her playfulness, sexual freedom, and flower power attitude are very much in keeping with the Czech films I’ve seen (especially I Served the King of England by Czech New Waver Jirí Menzel) and still have their allure today. l

  • Rick spoke:
    24th/07/2008 to 11:35 am

    Marilyn, between this and your choice for “Film of the Month,” guess I’m going to have to check out some Czech films (ouch … the pun definitely wasn’t intended).
    Funny how folks assume that films made by female directors have feminist agendas. Do they make a similar assumption with males? I don’t even know what the opposite of “feminist agenda” would be … “male-ist”? Perhaps, since the film industry is still firmly in male hands, it should be “business-as-usual agenda.”
    Also interesting that Chytilová had to write a letter asserting her socialist ideals, perhaps asserting at the same time some revisionist history about why she made this film. I’m reminded of Andrei Tarkovsky who ultimately had to leave the Soviet Union to be able to make the films he wanted. He cut the 205-minute “Andrei Rublev” down to 185 minutes, ostensibly so it would get shown in the Soviet Union. However, when asked about it years later, he said that he wasn’t forced to cut it at all, that the 185-minute version was his definitive one. I haven’t seen the shorter version, but those who have don’t believe him, since the cuts are obviously to satisfy Soviet sensibilities. Trust the art, not the artist.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    24th/07/2008 to 12:41 pm

    Hee hee, Rick. Once I started reading about the Czech New Wave, I found several films that really sounded interesting. (I had also seen I Served the King of England this past October and was very impressed with it.) Daisies especially appealed to me as the work of the lone female of the group.
    I think the fact that Chytilová IS a woman in a man’s world–especially in 1966–seems like a feminist statement in itself. Her protagonists also act up quite a bit. As a feminist myself, I’m afraid these two things don’t add up to feminism to me, not even taking into account that she was working in the 1960s. I think there are gross misunderstandings about what feminism is that have gotten worse as the twistings of backlash have done their damage.
    I may start a blog about feminism, though I’m wary of hate comments. I wouldn’t publish them, but I’d still have to read them.

  • Rick spoke:
    24th/07/2008 to 1:41 pm

    I’d appreciate learning more about feminist film criticism. About the only thing I know about is Mulvey’s theory of the male gaze.
    Feminist critique, along with black liberation theology, has opened refreshing new avenues of exploration in biblical studies, for instance, but the backlashes lately have been fierce, and they seem to be growing.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    24th/07/2008 to 2:16 pm

    I guess I was thinking more about feminism in general that about film in particular. IF people understood how films were coded with patriarchal assumptions, it would be easier to understand their influence in perpetuating a male-oriented narrative of life.
    There is a school of feminist film criticism that would say Daisies is feminist because its avant garde nature destroys the traditional narratives of patriarchy. I’ve seen a lot of sites, including IMDb, call the sisters Marie I and Marie II, but the film clearly uses distinct names for them, and unlike the oppositional nature of avant garde female characters noted in this theory (one observing the other, noting dichotomy, and then seeing the split as a false one–which itself sounds like an appropriation of the “male gaze” theory), the sisters’ experiences are similar or identical.
    Only the chandeleir judges them; if it represents patriarchy, it’s a real stretch, in my opinion. From my perspective, Czech cinema is too playfully anarchic and cynical to support this kind of symbolism. The chandelier seems a “shit happens” kind of event that the big hammer of patriarchy, though I wouldn’t rule out the big hammer and sickle of Communism (the film seems prescient about what would happen to Czechoslovakia’s Prague Spring and to the director herself).

  • MovieMan0283 spoke:
    2nd/08/2008 to 1:48 pm

    This is probably the Czech New Wave film closest in spirit to Jean-Luc Godard (other ones that I’ve seen, like Loves of a Blonde or Closely Watched Trains, feel closer to Truffaut).
    Oddly enough, Godard is supposed to have hated it, but I think Jacques Rivette loved it – and you can definitely see its influence (or else a coincidentally similar spirit) with Celine & Julie Go Boating.

  • BB spoke:
    6th/08/2008 to 11:23 am

    I loved this post, and just saw this film last night for the first time.
    Two quick thoughts: as for the “feminism”, beyond the perhaps quirkily dated “liberation” that’s going on in the film, liberation from gender roles, from received or conventional sexual roles, etc., there’s a lot of play with imagery from psychoanalysis–I’m especially thinking of the amazing scene in which the two women literally perform castrations on symbolic phalluses (phalli? sorry). This is sort of reiterated for me in the banquet scene, in which the high-heeled shoes are shown as these agents of, oh not to overblow it, but as the agents out to destroy capitalist excess or something like that?
    The other thing your post really brought out for me is that chandelier. Now that I think about it, the depiction is of the two women “riding” it, referencing both the “free spirited”-ness which they will trade in for robotic housework (which ironically “makes them happy” and of course sets them up for death) and a sort of copulatory joy.
    anyway, thanks again for the post!

  • Marilyn spoke:
    6th/08/2008 to 12:13 pm

    Brandon – Thanks for stopping by. I think you have some interesting ideas there, particularly about the chandelier. (The cutting of phalluses doesn’t really impress me, even for the 1960s. It just seems part of their not-so-innocent romp over men.) I don’t think I buy the riding of a chandelier as symbolic of riding a man, but the domestic angle is intriguing.
    Personally, I would advise men to view this movie as a look at ways that girls like to have fun, particularly young, irresponsible girls. If we didn’t have so much cultural baggage attached to women’s creative expressions–and fewer images and stories to help normalize their behavior–we could look at these girls the same way we look at Ferris Bueller.

  • Meko spoke:
    15th/10/2008 to 3:32 pm

    Their names are Marie, not Jezinka and Jarmila; they’re not sisters, they’re friends.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    15th/10/2008 to 3:38 pm

    Meko – That’s not what the subtitles say, but I’ve seen your assertion elsewhere. So, who knows?

  • LaMort spoke:
    1st/09/2012 to 8:03 am

    Yes, different subtitles give different names and relations to the two leads.

    Daisies is truly an outstanding one of a kind film that should not be missed by all.

  • Filefish 5 spoke:
    18th/06/2013 to 3:34 pm

    I really enjoyed this odd movie,even though not understanding quite all of it.I found the table scene both sexy and mischevious as well as odd.I can truly say I’ve never seen anything else quite like it.

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