Saturday 14 September 2013

1,001 Films: "Daisies/Sedmikrásky" (1966)

The various cinematic New Waves, mostly male movements kicking against the pricks and, in doing so, striving to wrench control of the medium and its history, the stories and the girls they wanted, needed its female voices and freer spirits to counter the furrowed-brow seriousness and deflate the puffed-up egos of their young male equivalents. The French had Agnès Varda; the Czechs, for their part, Věra Chytilová. In the latter's film Daisies, two wide-eyed young women - a brunette and a redhead, styled alternately as beach babes, latter-day flappers and fashion models, who could equally pass as a proto-Céline and Julie or sniggering sisters tottering in heels around the Bigg Market - decide that, since the world's gone to pot, they might as well make some mischief. This they will do, in sketches that see them, variously, annoying the patrons of a nightclub, setting fire to their own apartment, and staging a daring raid on a banquet fit (and possibly prepared for) a king.

Representatives of that foolish-old-man class these minxes are seen to lead on and cast aside would doubtless regard their behaviour as that of silly little girlies or stone-cold golddiggers, but Daisies is a film made at the expense of such foolish old men: a loose cross-stitch thrown up the flagpole in anticipation of the feminist movement that would eventually gather around it. Crucially, Chytilová leaves her most trenchantly satirical gestures to the very end, by which point, it's assumed, any greying bureaucrats in the audience would long since have walked out or nodded off: here, finally, we see the pair devouring the banquet, only to find themselves obliged to tidy up, in the manner of "good" girls and housewives everywhere.

You could label (and perhaps dismiss) the approach as kooky or batty - terms the chinstrokers weren't rushing to apply to Breathless or Vivre Sa Vie - yet Daisies remains among the cinema's most purely playful ventures, striving to counter the iron fists of the Soviet Bloc's propaganda arm with a lightness of touch, a free and open hand. Throughout, there's a liberating sense of what could still be done with the medium. Film stocks are mixed up with asynchronous sound; images are diced and spliced together in a visual stream-of-consciousness; it goes off on tangents, changes colour, dips a toe (and a severed head) into the nascent world of movie special effects, generally refusing to sit still and do what anyone would tell it.

The actresses, loose-limbed and eminently game, prove fine physical comedians, and their pratfalls and laughter are oddly infectious: if it is a gag, it's one we're invited to share, however childish, irritating or lacking in structure it might appear - a one-off nose-thumbing or ginger-knocking more than it is a fully reasoned critique. Though it was banned by the humourless Czech authorities for "depicting the wanton", you couldn't really suggest any cuts that might modify it (indeed, it's so ramshackle no-one would likely notice any cuts), and that's the film's genius: in being about nothing very much in particular, it therefore becomes about everything. From its opening credits - cutting together industrial-film images of cogs and gears with footage of an (unspecified) bombing raid - to its final series of explosions and concluding cry of defiance, Daisies forms an act of generalised cinematic disobedience: a prank, a spanner in the works, something the system couldn't entirely classify.

Daisies is available on DVD through Second Run. 

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