I Feel It All May 11, 2021
On Daisies and Valerie and Her Week of Wonders
arie I and Marie II (Jitka Cerhová and Ivana Karbanová) want to destroy things. At the beginning of Daisies
(1966), Věra Chytilová’s lovably unruly
buddy comedy, these symbolically same-named best friends have an epiphany. Why shouldn’t they give into these destructive impulses? “If the world is rotten, let us be rotten,” they agree. So the Maries — like wicked forest sprites with their mischievous giggles and whims for flower crowns, floral dresses, and thick, leonine slashes of eyeliner — henceforth spend almost all of Daisies
stirring up trouble. The movie skews episodic. The duo will stage elaborate pranks; set their
shared apartment’s ceiling decorations aflame out of boredom; have food fights; commit
petty theft; drunkenly interrupt cabaret shows; bathe in milk they also dip slabs of bread into; swing from chandeliers.
The girls especially love toying with unsuspecting men. This dyad has a routine where Marie I will go out on a date with a guy seemingly interested in a sugar daddy-style arrangement; Marie II will crash it; then they dupe the man into buying them a feast before ditching him. In one of the movie’s funniest scenes, a young man drones over the phone about how in love he is with one of the Maries. His yearnings aren’t listened to; they become background noise for the girls as they absent-mindedly — albeit metaphorically — slice up sausages, bananas, and pickles. (There is so much eating in this movie — and the microphones are careful to amplify every bite, chew, swallow, and lip smack — that my roommate asked if I was watching an ASMR video when they briefly passed through the living room.) The Maries have as much of an appetite for a good meal as they do a memorable life. There’s no telling what will sate them. “One should try everything,” one Marie concludes.
Daisies’ presentation refracts the narrative’s lawlessness. Many scenes are washed over in a single color — a purple or an orange or a green, maybe — like a silent movie. (The film can at times evoke silent-era slapstick comedy — a period when screen-tinting was commonplace.) Images oftentimes look like they’re disintegrating. Jump cuts flourish. When montages transpire they jerk around, like roller-coasters. Partway through the movie, the girls decide to have some fun with scissors — and, in a meta twist, start cutting up the screen itself. Nothing is safe from their caprices — not even the medium through which Chytilová transmits their misadventures. Even if Daisies was purely an exercise in chaos-sowing and nothing else, it would still invigorate. Chytilová and her nonprofessional actresses make it seem like they’re having the most fun in the world, and I couldn’t help but get caught up in the excitement of what felt like a series of filmed dares. Seeing these women do whatever they want is itself a delight. Societal bounds are treated no differently than wallpaper: there, but unimportant to the action it envelops.
But Chytilová’s aim isn’t exclusively sensory. The last thing we see in the movie is archival footage of explosions; then a title card takes over the screen. “Dedicated to those who get upset only over a stomped-upon bed of lettuce," it reads.
The movie might seem, before this epilogue, like a condemnation of excess. After the girls try making amends for their bad behavior, it doesn’t matter: karma, ever-cruel, loves a bold entrance. But this last line tweaks their punishment’s implication. These girls might be wasteful, but who cares about relatively innocuous misbehaviors when there are larger systemic problems creating havoc on a bigger scale? (The movie was made under a totalitarian government, whose approval Chytilová had to get before even making the movie — more on that in a bit.) This coda gives Daisies a last-minute kick; it invigorates everything coming before it. The Maries’ determination to eschew social permissions becomes a political act — and its ultimate untenability only further proves it.
Despite the governmental approval that preceded its release, Daisies was swiftly banned in its native Czechoslovakia shortly after its premiere. National Assembly member Jaroslav Pružinec famously denounced the film for flagrantly “depicting the wanton." A major sticking point was the open squandering of goods while the nation was literally going through a food shortage. Though Chytilová wasn’t exactly blacklisted from filmmaking, her ability to make another movie became fraught — even more so after the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Soviet Union. (Her follow-up to Daisies — 1969’s Fruit of Paradise — was immediately followed by a long, basically forced absence from feature directing.) She petitioned President Gustav Husak directly in 1975 to let her make another feature, and in 1976 she saw one of her biggest successes in The Apple Game. Even then, Chytilová’s career would still continue to be flecked with censorship trouble. Daisies was in several ways representative of the fundamental battle at the heart of her career: an eagerness to break barriers that was promptly undermined by said barriers. But what Chytilová managed to get away with is still plenty exhilarating.
hytilová was part of an unofficial but generally agreed-upon class of Czech filmmakers that, throughout the 1960s, made movies that ideologically worked in opposition to both the conservative communist rule of
Jitka Cerhová and Ivana Karbanová in 1966's Daisies.
the time and the stylistic conventions of the films of the previous decade. (Chytilová is the only woman director considered part of this cohort, which also included Miloš Forman before he found success in America.) Shortly after watching Daisies the other day I sought out Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970), one of the last films said to belong to the loosely mapped out Czechoslovak New Wave period. Valerie, directed by sometime-Chytilová collaborator
Jaromil Jireš and co-written with Daisies screenwriter Ester Krumbachová, isn’t quite as ideologically rebellious as the latter film. But it shares a similarly thrilling unwillingness to cater to formal tradition — in this case exercised on a story in the Alice in Wonderland (1865) mold. (I haven’t read the 1935 Vítězslav Nezval book it’s based on, but those familiar with it say Jireš’s movie is faithful.)
Like Daisies, the hallucinogenic Valerie and Her Week of Wonders centers around young womanhood: its heroine is the 13-year-old orphan (Jaroslava Schallerová) of the title. This fairytale-like movie ostensibly takes place entirely inside her subconscious — “This is only a dream; I’m asleep,” she assures herself partway through the film — and as an extension of her many forms of dread the film’s plotting resembles that of a maze of youthful apprehension. Valerie’s every youthful anxiety — in some way connected to mortality, her burgeoning sexuality, her growing uncertainty around her relationship with religion, and more — is literalized with folkloric, symbolic aplomb. When Valerie first gets her period, it’s alluded to by the sight of daisy petals dotted with pearls of blood. A couple of statues in the town square have bee nests buzzing in their crotch areas. A cabal of shirtless men appears out of nowhere to whip a young man in a fountain into apparent submission.
Valerie is a Little Red Riding Hood-like figure. Only instead of the Big Bad Wolf pursuing her it’s an assortment of adults (usually men) crossing her path whose intentions, if not outright sinister, are hard for her to parse. The scariest pursuant of all is an actual shapeshifter whose most common form reminds us of Death’s; adding to the creepiness is that many of Valerie’s leery admirers may or may not be related to her. Rather than end her journey by safely getting to a loved one’s house (Valerie’s grandma in the film is, subversively, categorically shady — fixated on trying to find a way to steal her granddaughter’s youth), Valerie seeks to chart her own path as the world around her seems intent on sullying her every move. There might not be anyone she can totally trust; she can only ward off the world’s harms for so long. In this unnerving — yet still fundamentally childlike — fantasy, one’s innocence gets its first bites of often-cruel adulthood and is inexorably forever changed by the taste.
Valerie and Her Week of Wonders: A