There’s something about banned movies that makes you want to run out and see for yourself what the fuss has been about. In the case of Daises, by Czech New Wave filmmaker Věra Chytilová, modern audiences who come to see this late-’60s gem will be rewarded with a wicked sex farce and daring surrealist cinematography. Where Jiří Menzel’s Closely Watched Trains sparkled with similar wit, but was more firmly rooted in the high-modernist, absurdist tradition (the film was based on a novel by Czech prose master Bohumil Hrabal), the humor in Daisies is more oddball-eccentric, and its disjointed camerawork more willfully cinematic.
The story revolves around two female friends, played with astounding campiness by nonprofessionals Jitka Cerhová and Ivana Karbanová. The duo, both called Marie and fashionably dolled-up, likes to dine with older men, playing a game of escorts: The dates are fixed to be the brunette’s, but the blonde shows up unannounced, feigns to be the brunette’s sister, orders a full meal, for which the gentlemen inevitably pay, and unceremoniously stuffs her face. “I have a big appetite,” she warns, while interrogating them about their wives.
The film is about excessive appetites: for food, which culminates in an outrageous banquet-table romp, with the two women gobbling down mayonnaise salad, hams, and sugar-loads of cake, before swinging, circus-like, on an enormous glass chandelier; down to ravenous sexual appetites, particularly the evocative cravings for “yummy meat,” and chewing on suggestively curved giant pickles, sausages, and bananas. Using food to evoke sexual organs, and the pleasures of the sex act, aligns brazen Chytilová with Jan Švankmajer. But where Švankmajer often uses animation to make his slabs of meat jiggle and slither, Chytilová’s method, in the hands of daring cinematographer and Chytilová’s deceased husband, Jaroslav Kučera, is closer to surrealist collage. She frequently changes locations—from the girls’ apartment, decorated with bizarre overgrown leafage, to a sun deck, restaurants, cabaret halls, and train stations. The overall effect is a dizzying kaleidoscope, as you can suddenly find yourself on a new set, as if by tilting your head. Then there’s the Alice in Wonderland trick, also frequently employed by Švankmajer, where any hole or crevice, in the wall or floor, can be a conduit to a parallel world. In Daisies, colors schemes change as easily as locations, as if on a manual camera, where you can color your reality red, blue, sepia, and so on, for dramatic effect, or just to shake things up a bit.
Experimenting is key to the girls’ enterprise: They’re out to try new things, and compete for which one’s more spoiled. The word “spoiled” is used not only to mean pampering, an anathema to the workers state that was the Soviet-ruled Czechoslovakia, but also deflowering a girl. In one scene, the girls allude to the second meaning: “Why do you want to spoil us?” they ask a sugar-daddy figure. “We’re still developing.” In this sense, Daisies is Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, with all the theoretical pomp pumped out of it, and all the sexual shenanigans intact.
Daisies are then young girls who have reached pubescence, and are fully aware of their sexual power, but aren’t ready to embrace it, so they test it first. It’s a peculiar age, full of identity shifts. The brunette jokingly asks the blonde how she can even be sure she exists, since she doesn’t have a job, and isn’t registered anywhere. The only reality these two have, and acknowledge, is the one they create. This makes them wildly subversive, in the vein of Polish avant-garde writer Witold Gombrowicz, whose novel Ferdydurke showed how the young’s identities are fluid, and obdurate enough, to break the pernicious mold of indoctrination. Sometimes the humor flies so fast, delivered so offhandedly, we may not even catch it: After stealing tip money from a public-toilet attendant, one Marie says, “This is also makes me a liar,” and not just a thief. “That’s nothing,” says the other. “Everybody’s doing it. Nobody ever notices.” One can see how such lines made censors nervous—as did jokes about boyfriends locked up in jail. The sight of plush restaurants and sumptuous tables may today be read as reeking of the Party’s privileges—which would be ironic, since the censors’ official excuse for banning the film was that too much food had been wasted during the making of it. In the end, the two Daisies have no morals, but if Chytilová really wanted to warn us against “the consequences of irresponsible human behavior,” as Michal Bregant, director of the National Film Archive in Prague, recently told The New York Times, she did it with such panache, those viewers game for the ride are unlikely to feel her parental slap.