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  • Writer's pictureLyla Bhalla-Ladd

"Daisies": Homoerotic Feminism or Radical Nihilism?

When the Czechoslovakian Government banned “Daisies” (1966) for “depicting the wanton,” they produced the most succinct, accurate film review of it thus far. In a new form of recklessness, of true promiscuity, “Daisies” lets all desires run free and embraces vices without inhibition. For women in the 1960′s, it was a daring fantasy.

In Vera Chytilová's avant-garde, surrealist film, which features two friends both named Marie who con the world around them for food, drinks and entertainment, it’s easy to slap on a “feminist film” label. But as the girl’s tricks and foolishness push the boundaries of societal norms, a more complex, universal sentiment of dissatisfaction summates the resulting radical social rebellion.

The film opens with a summer scene of the Maries declaring, “When everything is being spoiled, we’ll be spoiled, too.” The film follows the girls through a fragmented timeline of dinner dates and mornings in their shared apartment. Each night, one Marie secures a date with a different older man. The other Marie then joins the dinner to exhaust the men and the dinner tab. Afterward, the girls trick the men into thinking they will follow them on a train out of town. But each time, at the last minute, they hop off the moving car and return home. Wildly amused by their scheme, the girls continue this every day. When they are not out on their routine, they are lounging in their apartment eating, drinking and bathing. The girls indulge in bourgeois pleasures and spoil their lives. Their opulent escapades leave them each day full, drunk and giggling at each other.

Many critiques of this film have interpreted the girls as a feminist statement of unapologetic girlhood, but such an analysis is too shallow. The Maries take their gleeful revenge on gullible men, standards of formality, the prioritization of images, their apartment and even at times, each other. Their indulgent lives read better as an experiment in consumerist, post-industrial life in which the surrounding world is at war and exploitative. The Maries react to this Nietzschean desert by abusing the same world that abuses them.

These ideals did not go over well with Czechoslovakian authorities at first. Chytilová was banned from filmmaking for seven years after “Daisies” premiered in 1966 in Paris. She was only permitted to return to work on the terms that her films be more “realistic,” fittingly two years before the Prague Spring. Many journalists have called Chytilová a feminist filmmaker, as her films always almost center on female narratives. However, she repeatedly rejected the feminist label and protested that she was an individualist and that “seeking messages of feminism in her films is the shallowest possible way to interpret their meaning.”

The Maries lay in bed all day, eat like animals whenever they could and roll in the filth of their apartment. Yet, they eat their food with rollers in their hair, in anticipation of their later games with men. They’re penniless ladies. They take their a-line dresses and kitten heels to smuggle wine bottles into bars for cheap drinks. They leave the phone ringing until their attention is free. They gaze innocently into their lovers’ eyes, getting more naked to elicit more meaningless love and then forget their names.

Perhaps the feminist wave which Chytilová was referring to – one which encouraged women to become men to conquer and usurp them – was unfit to claim “Daisies”. Images of drowning a man’s likeness in a bathtub of milk, grossly chomping on phallic foods while a lover professes his love over the phone, or forgetting that same lover’s name might remind an audience of a past-wave feminist mindset. But truly, this is seen through the man-hating stereotypes of feminism and does not touch the larger point of nihilism and bliss that the girls truly experience. The cons they construct are for their pleasure. The girls torment the world with their girlish playfulness, refusing to conform or act in expectation. The girls gain power over others not by becoming men, but by being women — and radical women at that.

Toying with men’s feelings is their fun, but they’re not heroes to women either. They gawk at, embarrass, and steal from other women in the film as well, perhaps in Chytilová's attempt to steer the movie from the feminist label slapped onto any film starring two women. Nonetheless, distinctly female patterns emerge out of the character’s impressive and poignant development. Each night that the Marie’s go out for their charade to trap a man into their dinner bill, they make their pilgrimage to a women’s restroom, where they visit their older friend. She sings to them and begs them to stay with her. She advises them and sews their dresses when they tear. Their daily routine includes a check-in with their local elder. Despite their rejection of the world, its values and its failures, they maintain a relationship with their maternal friend.

In a welcome tangent from the girl’s routine, they accidentally push their lunch date off the train and carry on to its destination themselves. They are dismayed to find that their tricks only work in the city. Out in the country, the girls lose all sense of self when they are ignored by the local farmers and workers. “I thought we’d disappeared,” says one Marie to the other. It is only when they see the mess they made on their way through town, throwing corn husks around in the street, that they are reminded of their being. “We are, we are, we are,” they chant to themselves in happy witnessing of their chaos. They wreck, therefore they are.

Their nihilist ways escape them in the country. The men there do not fall for their tricks and they lose their self-conception. Chytilová asks us, in the city, what do we consider sacrosanct behavior and norms and outside of our industrial, consumerist land, what nonconformists are without their mocking of it?

The girls find a grand dining room and an accompanying feast in their final act. They indulge and play among the spoils of meats and cakes and liquor until eventually descending into pure gluttony. In this scene, the girls progress around the setting until they have taken every seat at the table. In the following food fight and chandelier swing, the girls have their first and only moral “teaching” of the film. Upon falling from the chandelier, the girls fall into a river. The text over the scene proclaims “That was the only way for them to end up.” When they call themselves spoiled, help from a nearby ship is rejected and it is assumed that the girls drown in their ways.

With an unorthodox narrative choice, however, Chytilová explores an alternative ending. The text proclaims “and even if they were given a chance,” and the audience is afforded the hypothetical redemption for the girls. Following, the girls return to the dining room, wrapped in the news of the world (thus aware) and promptly begin to make amends — placing the broken plates back on their settings, three wine glass stems in position, too. The girls scoop the muddled cakes and foods back onto their silver platters and hang the stained drapes back up. The girls lie amongst their repentance and affirm “We’re so happy” until the chandelier finally falls on them. Chytilová ultimately punishes the girls for their Sardanapalian debauchery. Although the girls comedically embrace the pleasures of their world as protagonists, they are ultimately a cautionary tale in the fruitless labor of trading one extreme for another. In the Czechoslovakian age of socialism and strict values of ‘realism,’ Chytilová's wisdom in “Daisies” lets us see the consequences of what many demanded in reaction to the political climate.

The exempt character of “Daisies”, the woman whom they visit in the bathroom, represents a passive stance in Chytilová's world as she cares for the girls and wishes for them to stay with her rather than engage in their sprees. She may be the more accurate alternate ending. We are warned to either be consumed by our extreme (one or the other) or to fall back and watch others along the same path.

“Daisies” reminds us to indulge slightly in our fleeting time, but not attempt to take back from the world what it takes from us, a parable in moderation and patience and one we still need 60 years later.


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