Bilgincan

Murat Can Bilgincan reporting

The “New” Czech New Wave

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Vera Chytilova’s “Daisies” (1967) is one of the most brilliant films of the Czech New Wave. It tells the feminist and existentialist story of two beautiful, marionette-like women who play with men, consume excessively and destroy everything, including themselves. Chytilova tells this interesting story through highly experimental camera and editing techniques. The combination of original subject matter and experimental technique has produced a unique Czech New Wave film. Therefore, it is shocking to read Peter Cowie’s claim that “Czech cinema matched the French [New Wave]…. stride for stride throughout the mid-sixties.” (Cowie, 174) Although the revolutionary influence of the French New Wave on world cinema cannot be denied, stating that the French were matched “stride for stride” is an exaggeration. “Daisies” is a representative of the Czech New Wave and it disproves Cowie’s claim. Despite certain textual and structural similarities between “Daisies” and a French New Wave film, such as Goddard’s “Breathless” (1960), Vera Chytilova’s use of the surrealist collage for feminist purposes and her passion for making social commentary clearly distinguish her work from that of the French New Wave directors.

Even though it is problematic to make generalizations about the characteristics of the French New Wave that includes a wide spectrum of directors, it is only possible to respond to Cowie by basing our response on such generalizations. According to the introduction of Chris Wiegand’s “French New Wave,” the most fundamental characteristic of the French New Wave is that the way the story is told is more important than the story itself. In other words, the French New Wave director is more concerned about discovering new ways of telling a story than telling a profound story with numerous political messages. (Wiegand, 21) In order to discover new ways of cinematic story-telling, French directors combined modern elements with classical silent techniques, such as irises. (Wiegand, 21) The use of the hand-held camera, jump-cuts, frontality and self-reflexivity are the most prominent modern elements employed by the New Wave directors. (Wiegand, 15) In terms of production, the director usually wrote the script, non-professional actors were cast and the film was shot on location. (Wiegand, 23) These production characteristics gave rise to auteurship, since the director had total control over production. (Wiegand, 16) The old Cahiers du Cinema critics had become the sole owners of the end-product, which even gave them the chance to include intellectual inside jokes in their movies. In short, the typical French New Wave director was an intellectual auteur whose main concern was to articulate a standard story through unique mixes of modern and classical techniques.

“Daisies” shares some of the aforementioned characteristics. During her interview with Robert Buchar, Vera Chytilova admits that she is an auteur. (Buchar, 53) No creative decision could be made without her approval, just like with Truffaut or Resnais.

Moreover, Chytilova wrote both the story and the screenplay for “Daisies,” which guaranteed her creative autocracy. (Buchar, 72) Her influence on actors was tremendous as well, especially since both Marie 1 and Marie 1 were played by non-professionals. In various scenes, including the opening scene where the Maries sit on the pier with their bathing suits on, Chytilova made them look straight into the camera, increasing the frontality. Frontality was a modern characteristic widely celebrated by French New Wave directors. Another modern characteristic that may have been borrowed from the French is the jump cut. For instance, in the restaurant scenes, the jump cut prevents the audience from getting bored of the long sequences by frequently startling them.

On the other hand, there are numerous differences between “Daisies” and the typical French New Wave film. Chytilova shot “Daisies” at Barrandov Studios, not on location. (Buchar, 55); not many shots were photographed with the hand-held camera; classical silent techniques were excluded; there were no a-la-Godard allusions or intellectual inside jokes; and the director did not give self-reflexivity a prominent role in her movie. These are only the superficial differences. “Daisies” defies the most fundamental characteristic of the French New Wave by achieving a balance between the relative importance of style of cinematic story-telling and the content of the story. The French New Wave prioritizes the technique over the subject. However, such a prioritization is not true for Chytilova’s movie. In “Daisies,” the feminist messages conveyed, the social/political statements made and the philosophical questions raised through the story are just as important as the artistic technique. Moreover, the technique of “Daisies” differs from that of the French New Wave also. There is no French New Wave Film that has such an intense mix of surrealist and experimental techniques as “Daisies” does. Although Agnes Varda with “Cleo 5 to 7” and Alain Resnais with “Last Year at Marienbad)” come pretty close to Chytilova with their surrealist technique, they were never comparably experimental. The close-analysis of the cutting-up scene and the food battle scene of “Daisies” can clarify the major differences both in technique and the importance of the story. The cutting-up scene demonstrates the intensity of Chytilova’s surrealist and experimental techniques, through which feminist issues are brought to the audience’s attention. On the other hand, the food battle scene proves that the story of “Daisies” is as important as its unique technique, by criticizing consumerism and emphasizing existentialist issues.

In the cutting-up scene, the Maries literally cut each other into pieces. One cuts her counter part’s arm; the other decapitates her friend in reaction. Giggling, they continue with the game until the screen is cut up into dozens of tiny images. Dividing the shot into numerous, independently moving rectangles is a highly radical technique that many French New Wave directors would not dare to use, partly because it would make the shot too surrealistic. In addition, an important function of Chytilova’s experimental cutting-up technique is to convey a feminist message, something very few French New Wave directors would be interested in doing. Through the collage of mini-Marie images, Chytilova explains what she has been doing throughout the movie. The audience realizes that the purpose behind Chtilova’s use of sound bridges, color tinting, rhythmic editing and matches on action was to create a feminist collage. One might ask, “How is a collage related to feminism?” In “Daisies” it is related in two ways. The first relation is based on Bliss Cua Lim’s explanation of a collage: “Collage and photomontage are linked by their ability to detach elements from their habitual relations in order to connect them in new ways.” (Lim, 64) Chytilova has written a screenplay about two stereotypical dolls. Maries are perceived by the opposite sex as superficial materialists whose sole purpose is to fulfill men’s sexual fantasies, which is reflected through Maries’ interactions with men throughout the film. The director deconstructs this biased perception and reconstructs it in new ways, just like a collage. Although Maries are still materialistic and they are perceived as sex objects, in Chytilova’s world they are capable of using these characteristics to gain power. In “Daisies,” power is equivalent to the ability to destroy. Since Maries are capable of destroying farmers’ crops, men’s hearts and banquet tables, they are powerful indeed. Therefore, one of the functions of the cutting-up technique is to draw attention to the collage structure of the whole movie, which parallels Chytilova’s feminist restructuring of the dolls.

The secondary connection between collage and feminism roots back to the history of collage made by misogynistic surrealists. Many feminist intellectuals have insisted that surrealist collage has been used as a misogynistic method of experimentation on the female body. (Lim, 66) Instead of cutting pieces from naked female bodies and manipulating them for the artistic satisfaction of male artists, Chytilova has created her collage so that it would empower women. Even though she retained the stereotypical perception of women, she moved a few pieces around and granted her characters the ability to use the knowledge of their stereotypical constraints for manipulative purposes. (e.g: manipulation of their old dates) It was no longer the surrealist misogynists undertaking the manipulation, but Chytilova’s female heroines. The director’s unique cutting-up technique places a wide gap between Daisies and the French New Wave by emphasizing such feminist values celebrated by “Daisies.”

While the cutting-up scene demonstrates the omnipotence of technique, the food battle scene stresses the importance of the story. The food battle scene does not give ideological messages through certain allegories created with the technique, (as it was the case with the montage allegory of the previous scene) but instead it emits the intellectual messages directly through the screenplay. Maries get into a food elevator and find themselves in a banquet room with dozens of delicious dishes. They consume as much of the food as they can. The goal is not to satisfy their hunger but to eat as much as possible. Their consumption lacks reason. Later, they start throwing creamy cakes at each other. Hence, the food battle begins. At the end of the battle, Maries regret the destruction that they have caused. Dressed up in clothes made of newspaper, they attempt to put together the broken plates and reorganize the trays of food. Compared to the cutting-up scene, here, there is nothing striking about Chytilova’s technique. In terms of camera movements and editing, it looks just like a classical Hollywood movie shot for an existentialist screenplay. However, the director is still able to make a social commentary, which proves that she is not dependent on her technique to articulate her social messages. In this case, the newspaper clothing that symbolizes “proper conviction” hints at Chytilova’s social commentary. (Lim, 43) “Daisies” heavily criticizes excessive consumption and in the food battle scene Chytilova makes her most manifest criticism of it. After Maries overindulge themselves, they feel guilty for consuming excessively. The heroines’ accepting their fault destroys their characters that are based on materialism and excessive consumption. Throughout the film, Maries ask each other existentialist questions. Because they failed to find answers for them, they decided to act in ways that were frowned upon by society. As they constantly went against the society’s morals, they discovered a purpose for their being. Their function in the world was to live against moral values by destroying everything around them. Excessive consumption is a type of destruction and once they felt guilty for doing that, they truly had no reason to exist in the diegesis of “Daisies.” Consequently, Chytilova saw it fit to “destroy” the embodiments of excessive consumption by dropping a giant crystal chandelier on them. There was no reason for the chandelier to fall. They had not touched it. It was not even an important element of the mis-en-scene until the final shot of the food battle scene. Therefore, the giant crystal chandelier could fall only if the Auteur of “Daisies” wished. Her wish would be a manifestation of her unshakable stance against consumerism and so it has been.

The intellectual auteurs of the French New Wave told daily stories through unique mixes of classical and modern techniques. Their movies always prioritized technique over subject matter. The food battle scene of “Daisies” proves the absence of such a prioritization in a Czech New Wave film by making a statement against consumerism and arising existentialist questions without the aid of complex technique. Although the cutting-up scene emphasizes feminist issues primarily through technique-related allegories, it can easily be distinguished from French New Wave films by analyzing its dense surrealist and experimental technique. Therefore, we have discovered that Vera Chytilova’s “Daisies” is an exception that contradicts Peter Cowie’s perception of the Czech New Wave. Superficial similarities, such as auteurship, jump cuts and frontality, are insufficient to claim that the Czech “matched the French stride for stride.” (Cowie, 174) Chytilova’s masterpiece indicates that the sixties movement in Czechoslovakia was a genuinely new Czech New Wave.

NOTE: This is a 2007 midterm paper I wrote for my World Cinema class, as a Yale undergrad.

Bibliography

Cowie, Peter. Revolution: The Explosion of World Cinema in the Sixties. New York: Faber and Faber, 2004.

Wiegand, Chris. French New Wave. Harpenden: Pocket Essentials, 2005.

Buchar, Robert, ed. Czech New Wave Filmmakers in Interviews. Jefferson: McFarland and Company, 2004.

Lim, Bliss Cua. “Dolls in Fragments: Daisies as Feminist Allegory.” Camera Obscura 47   (2001): 37-77.

 

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Author: bilgincan

Journalist & Filmmaker

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