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Criterion Shines Light on Masterful Daisies

I first saw Věra Chytilová’s “Daisies” almost exactly ten years ago to the day when the previous restoration was making the rounds of art house theaters. I’ll never forget arriving at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco and seeing a huge line of young men waiting to get it. I thought how cool it was that this feminist classic was drawing such a diverse crowd. Little did I know they were actually in line for a skateboard documentary that was playing in the theater’s smaller auditorium. After the screening, I couldn’t help but think those skaters would have loved the archaic antics of the two Maries at the center of Chytilová’s Dadaist masterpiece. 

Cut to ten years later, and the Criterion Collection has released the film on Blu-ray after Janus Films toured a brand new 4K restoration. Using the original camera and sound negatives, this absolutely stunning work was carried out in collaboration between the Národní filmový archiv, Prague, the Czech Film Fund, and the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival (where earlier this year a gorgeous restoration of her 1970 film “Fruit of Paradise” was also screened).

Chytilová opens her film with bombed out footage from WWII with scenes of a cog turning. Militaristic drums announce the arrival of her protagonists: Marie (Ivana Karbanová) and Marie (Jitka Cerhová). Deciding that since “everything’s going bad in this world,” they might as well go bad too. What ensues is 76 minutes of pure rebellious chaos. From bilking men of industry for good food to disrupting reputable couples at a nightclub, the Maries commit to hedonistic pleasures, while trying to find signs of their own existence. 

In one of the Blu-ray supplements, film programmer Irena Kovarova discusses how Chytilová “always wanted to get to the core of what a film’s theme is and for “Daisies” that theme is destruction.” This destruction—sometimes through setting fires, trampling crops, cutting each other up with scissors, and decimating an official banquet via the greatest food fight in all cinema—is contrasted by the rich colors of the girls’ world. Their bright dresses, the verdant greens of their apartment—designed by co-screenwriter Ester Krumbachová, pop more vibrantly in this restoration than any version previously available. 

Other special features on this disc include an insightful 2004 documentary by Jasmina Blažević that features extensive interviews with Chytilová herself. Throughout the 55-minute doc, the director reveals she decided to attend the Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague (FAMU) because she didn’t like the rigidity of films being made by the establishment. “I wanted absolute freedom. Even if it were a mistake,” she recalls. Blažević mixes the interview footage of Chytilová with rare 16mm home movies shot by Chytilová’s then-husband and collaborator cinematographer Jaroslav Kučera. Anyone who loves the open candor of Agnès Varda towards the end of her career will find themselves charmed by Chytilová’s clear-eyed, and often mordant, examination of her own creative and personal life. 

The disc also includes a 26-minute documentary from 2012 directed by Daniel Bird entitled “Naughty Young People: Chytilova, Kucera, Krumbachova,” which serves as a brief, yet concise, look at the various artistic collaborations between the three culminating in the masterpiece that is “Daisies”. Interviews with contemporaries like musician and sometime actor Jan Klusák, Cinematographer Jaromír Šofr, and artist Šárka Hejnová help contexualize the impact of their creative output within the time and place in which they were working. 

The addition of two early shorts not only highlight Chytilova’s growth as an artist, but also establishes many of the thematic and visual themes found in “Daisies”. With her student thesis “Ceiling,” Chytilova combines her experience as a fashion model before attending film school with the kind of subversive film language found in her later films. A day in the life of a fashion model named Marta (Marta Kanovská), Chytilova surrounds the woman with whispering sounds of criticism from her hairdresser, the photographer for whom she works, and even her fellow models. The camera follows her like a predator, as everything in her life is dictated by those around her, from her hairstyle to her clothing to the very poses she striked. Even her love dictates how she should feel about their relationship. It’s this very suffocation of femininity that the Maries in “Daisies” aim to destroy.

In her second short “A Bagful of Fleas,” a girl named Eva moves into the dormitory of a textile factory and slowly chaos ensues. Although shot in a more docu-realist style than many of her other early films, Chytilova uses this setting to explore the conflicts between personal freedom and the communal edicts of a communist society. Through extensive voice over we hear Eva’s rebellious thoughts as she plots how she’ll escape this repressive existence. In both shorts, as in “Daisies,” Chytilova also interrogates the contrast between the natural world and the oppressive artificiality of city life. 

Finally, critic Carmen Gray’s booklet essay explores Chytilova’s unease with the label feminist by contextualizing it within Czech philosophical rejection of Western ideas in general. Gray also examines Chytilova’s subversion of Socialist censorship while tracing her place among the filmmakers who were part of what is now known as Czechoslovak New Wave. Gray’s deep understanding of the cinema of this region and the historical and political movements that influenced Chytilova give readers a deeper understanding of exactly what gave rise to Maries and what it is they are so hellbent on destroying—even if Chytilova insisted her film was meant to show how not to be. 

The only part of the disc that doesn’t quite work is audio commentary with Daniel Bird in discussion with Czech film scholar Peter Hames. Recorded for a previous home video release in 2012, Hames does a great job of contextualizing the film’s politics, but his feminist analysis is tenuous at best and does a disservice to some of Chytilova’s rich symbolism at worst. It would have been wonderful if an additional commentary had been recorded with female scholars who perhaps could have added a more complex, contemporary analysis of the film. 

Overall, this Criterion Collection release is an excellently curated disc, if long overdue. It’s not only a proper celebration of Chytilova’s tremendous artistic achievements, through its many supplements it also highlights her unique worldview. For students of cinema, Chytilova’s films—and her personal anecdotes—have a lot to teach us about persistence of vision, the importance of taking risks, and the inevitably of death. Although several of her films are available to stream on Criterion Channel currently, I can only hope more of her films get this same treatment on physical media soon. 

Marya E. Gates

Marya E. Gates is a freelance film and culture writer based in Los Angeles and Chicago. She studied Comparative Literature at U.C. Berkeley, and also has an overpriced and underused MFA in Film Production. Other bylines include Moviefone, The Playlist, Crooked Marquee, Nerdist, and Vulture. 

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