“Dedicated to Those Whose Sole Source of Indignation is a Messed-Up-Trifle.”
Vera Chytilova, Daisies, (1966).
Daisies both begins and ends with images of war. These are images of modern warfare, of mass destruction. These sequences frame the rest of the movie, they act like a bracketing device and therefore imply that it is from within them that the rest of the film must be seen and understood. The first scene that introduces the girls portrays them as dolls, their arms squeaking like hinges as they move erratically. This is immediately on the heels of the films opening sequence of war images alternated with close ups of a machine cranking away. Like a doll, a machine does not have a mind of its own to decide its own actions, other people must control and direct it. However unlike a doll a machine can be turned on and left to proceed in its automatic insistence indefinitely. Machines are expendable. When people begin to act like machines, and when people begin to be treated like machines, expected to automatically and blindly follow commands and orders the Dadaists called it automatism. Humans become like machines, expendable, or so they begin to be seen as such. World War I presented the world with destruction and murder on a more massive scale than could have ever been imagined previously. Automatism is the behavior of, and treatment of men like machines, they become part of the greater war machine and are expected to follow orders and kill without question. Likewise, casualties no longer matter, for like machines, men are seen as expendable. When a machine breaks, one replaces it. Dada was a response in the arts to the horrors of World War I.
Immediately following the images of war, and portrayed as dolls, the girls’ first conversation of the film is their most expansive. They decide and agree that “the world has gone bad.” Throughout the rest of the film the girls’ excuse and justification for acting the way they do is the, by now determined fact, that the world has gone bad and has therefore caused them too to go bad. That all the world has gone bad seems to be inextricably linked with the film’s opening images of war and allusion to both Dada and automatism. The film seems to imply that war has inspired a world wide sensation of numbness, people have been left semi-comatose – automatically and blindly doing only what is expected of them, like machines or dolls. The horrors of such massive and murderously destructive war have rendered everything meaningless. There no longer exists the optimistic hope of a grand narrative or salvation. As was an aim of Dada art, Daisies also seems to imply that all is meaningless. In these ways Daisies seems decidedly post modern. Post modern in its reliance on figurative form, on its anti-narrative aim and in its assurance that the horrors of the world have rendered human action meaningless. In Daisies the girls must first realize this reality, the reality that there is no truth or any such thing as the hopefulness of a greater, more important overriding narrative, some shred of justice or slither of meaning. Once, in their first scene, the girls have realized this they can finally act out as they have been dying to. No longer imbedded in the false security of social routine and norm, they can finally be free to do whatever they want. However, their destructiveness and the negativity that they inspire is by no means implied to be the necessary human condition. Rather, it is the necessary response to all the mass destructiveness and negativity that humanity has laid onto itself over the past century. That is, their behavior has been caused by greater situations and events that are removed from them and completely out of their control. They are not altogether free from the force of automatism, but they are indeed separate from the automatismatic masses who remain asleep to the realities of the world, if there is indeed any such thing as objective reality which the film also challenges. These are the people who are offended and repulsed by the girls’ behavior. They are shocked, and likewise the film itself through its radical and revolutionary approach to form is meant to shock audiences. The two girls supply a jolt to the people they confront, and the film is meant to do the same to its audiences. Chytilova’s radically avant-garde approach to filmmaking assaults the viewer in every respect. Chytilova destroys the conventions and the expectations of cinema much like how her protagonists destroy social and behavioral norms and expectations. In this way, in Daisies, form compliments content.
There is also the fact, which cannot be ignored, that the two protagonists of the film are female. There is indeed something to be said for their actions in respect to feminism. Feminist criticism often calls for the destruction of traditional forms of representation in order to replace them with new, just forms. To reinsert into the canon of work the female artists that history has ignored, as well as to replace the traditional aim of the visual arts as a male dominated medium. If film is traditionally a medium that constructs a male vantage point and aims to gratify purely male need and fantasy, then feminist film must rearrange the traditional form and aesthetic of representation in order to reverse the male-imposed power relationship. Daisies, in this sense, both prefigures feminism and enacts feminist theory.
The film ends much like it began. The scene in the banquet is arguably the film’s scene of greatest destruction. Much like their behavior throughout the film, the girls indulge in food and drink that does not belong to them, they break bottles, glasses and plates and they destroy, make a real disaster, of an upper class if not state funded banquet hall. Their scene of festivity and jovial destruction leads immediately to a reaction by the girls to clean up their mess, to work. The two appear redressed, but no longer in clothes, rather, bound in papers tied to their bodies with rope. They run nervously around the room, and indeed the scene is shot in fewer frames per second to give it a look of jerkiness and speed, cleaning and trying to fix their mess. All the while that they are cleaning the girls continually recite the rhetoric of work. They, apparently mindlessly, recite over and over that work is good, that they must do their work in order to be happy, as though hard work was a prerequisite to happiness. The strange thing is that they suddenly seem to almost believe it, that their necessity to do work will lead, once the work is done, to happiness. However, no matter how hard they work it does no good whatsoever in cleaning the mess and destruction that they have created. They set bits of broken plate next to one another and assure each other that it is just perfect, as it should be. In this scene work is shown to be absolutely meaningless and worthless, incapable of fixing anything or doing any good at all regardless of how much they praise it. The destruction was too great. The scene does however suggest that these two girls, apparently no longer the same two people that we had become acquainted with throughout the film, are bound by documents that tie them to their work and to a misleading and false ideology of the importance and virtue of work. The documents are manifested visually through the papers that are tied to their bodies. These papers that they wear are like the documents that enforce people to labor and to production quotas, but more importantly they are like the propaganda that tells the masses that to work all one’s life is virtuous and good. All the scenes during the film of collage making and all paper cutting that the girls did comes to mind and suggests that undoing themselves of these papers ought to be quite easy, however they seem helpless to stop working. They seem convinced that they must work before they can be happy, even if the work is obviously worthless since things are too far gone to be fixable anyway. The scene ends with the girls deciding that they have completed their work. They lie down, exhausted but elated, on the table. They smile and say that now that their work is done they are happy. At this moment, maybe because of its thorough and striking contradiction to everything the girls were and did throughout the film, they seem more ridiculous and ingenuine than even at their greatest heights of most ridiculous infantilistic behavior. This awkwardness that the audience is made to feel at this point is deliberate in order to underline the absurdity of the popular rhetoric which suggests that work is the only avenue to happiness. Finally, lying down on the table and in their achievement of “happiness,” the girls suddenly scream as the enormous and decadent chandelier above comes crashing down toward them. The scene cuts and is replaced with images of war, just as the film had begun. The audience is left to wonder, but there can be little doubt as to the chandelier’s devastating capacity. The final scene can be understood as a metaphor for life. The girls are bound by the documents, or laws, conventions and norms of the culture and society to which they belong, and as such they spend their entire life working and working toward the promise of happiness, but once the work is finally over, happiness is still elusive, because then they die. One works their whole life through, obeying the rules and hoping for happiness, and then they die. Daisies reveals the absolute absurdity of it all, and that it is meaningless. The automatism of post modern society is just that, a mindless automatism. The majority of the film, before the concluding scene, is a kind of demonstration of how one can break all social and behavioral expectations and shows that they are not invulnerable. It is also the realization of the desire to scream. To let out all of the pent up emotion associated with a post WWI and WWII world. It is a rebellion and a rejection of the world the way it is, and as such, it is incredibly revealing.
Daisies is iconoclastic in relation to all tradition and previous modes of filmmaking. It seems to say that the old modes are no longer valid. That this absolute madness of filmmaking is the only remaining viable means for expression of such sensitive but revolutionary and explosive issues.