I’ve been fascinated by isolated frames from the 1966 art house comedy Daisies for years, but never actually gave the film a chance until recently. Despite the intense, psychedelic cinematography that makes each scene so vivid in isolation, I was surprised to find that as a whole Daisies is for the most part an irreverent comedy. Adopting the same absurdist & humorous expressions of political unrest as the Dadaist movement during WWI, Daisies is a tonal protest against post-WWII Czech communism that combats the devastating emotional toll of war & totalitarian rule with sublime silliness. Director Vera Chytilová was years ahead of the curve on this absurdist comedy. Often cited as a cornerstone of the Czech New Wave and experimenting with visual trickery that still feels vivid & fresh five decades later (not to to mention predicting a lot of flower child hippie fashion), Daisies is an incredibly important work for something so wrapped up in absurdism & frivolity.
View Daisies in the wrong light & it might just play like a damning example of pretentious art cinema at its worst. Its disjointed, nonsensical dialogue about living as a “doll”, being “spoiled”, and “girls, girls, girls, girls” often feels like the more cringe-worthy aspects of performance art & slam poetry. The strange sound cues & alternating color filters often feel arbitrary at best, playing directly into the art-for-art’s-sake vibes of the film’s dialogue. Daisies is atonal & arhythmic in a way that’s sure to frustrate those who aren’t used to films that don’t aim to answer questions or satisfy genre requirements. Daisies is a provocation, a sort of a highbrow prank, and it’s too easy to see how that could be a turnoff for those who aren’t prepared for its obfuscation & deliberately nonsensical nature.
However, if you remove the intense cinematography, the ludicrous sound design, and the war imagery that opens & closes the film, you’d have what is at heart a remarkably silly comedy. Daisies follows two teenage pranksters (both ostensibly named Marie) as they leave behind a widespread trail of low-level mischief. Their worst crimes amount to leading along older men in order to eat lavish meals, disrupting night club acts, and some light pickpocketing. Daisies is just as girlish as it is disjointed & psychedelic. It’s hard to imagine exactly why the film got its director banned from working in her homeland for a decade for “depicting the wanton.” The film does depict its fair share of drunkeness & sexuality, but it mostly amounts to two teen girls (literally) swinging from the chandelier & cutting neckties like Harpo Marx. There certainly is a political tone to the film that suggests unrest & discontent, but just like everything else at play it’s mostly detectable as a prankish goof.
I think what I enjoyed most about watching Daisies was pinpointing where its influence has trickled down into modern media. Its absurdism & girlish pranks posit the film as an art house Broad City. The butterfly-heavy still image montages recall the hyperspecific beauty of (my favorite film from last year) The Duke of Burgundy. Its myriad of color filters & bizarre editing choices have been passed down through so many different films & television series over the decades that it would almost feel cliche if it weren’t for the date of its release. The giant scissors cutting up phallic symbols (sausages, bananas, pickles) in an intimate bedroom/art studio reminded me a great deal of Felt, a film I’ve been championing a lot lately. As much as these individual elements are recognizable in modern cinema in television, Daisies is still an idiosyncratic work. Its collage-covered bedrooms, classical surrealism (including a nod to Magritte’s green apple), still image montages, and maniacal giggling are all remarkably vivid & unique. Similarly, its Cubist approach to editing isn’t entirely impossible to find in other works (Hausu comes to mind), but it does still feel fresh & idiosyncratic.
Still, I find myself going back to the still frames of the two Maries’ bedroom/art space for what makes Daisies feel special as a singular work. It really is a remarkably beautiful space, like life-sized shadow box or an art instillation piece. I didn’t expect the film that accompanied that set to be as silly or as politically storied as Daisies ended up being, but that was mostly lagniappe for a film that could survive solely on the strength of its imagery. I’m getting wistful just browsing through those images right now.