“Everything is being spoiled in this world,” say two young women, both named Marie, as they lounge in their bathing suits. Their exasperated conversation at the start of Věra Chytilová’s Czech New Wave film Daisies tells of a world falling apart; these Maries, one blonde (Ivana Karbanová) and one brunette (Jitka Cerhová), do not know what to do about it. There is only one solution then: if the world is spoiled, then they will be spoiled too. It is time for everything to go bad.
Released in 1966, Daisies was initially banned in Czechoslovakia for its images of wanton women and excessive food wastage, which flew in the face of the values promoted by the Czech Communist Party and the state-censored film industry. Daisies is whimsical and largely plotless, mimicking the rambling adventures of the young women: the two Maries are destructive pranksters, laughing as they cause chaos around them. They giggle and tumble over at the cabaret bar until they are kicked out, they scheme older men to pay for their large dinners, they steal tip money from bathroom attendants, and they eat like crazy. The idea of ‘waste’ is everywhere: eating and wasting enormous quantities of food, getting wasted off wine and beer, wasting their youth running around and doing nothing much in particular.
Eating is a constant presence: the girls surround themselves with plants or fruits, and often are found chewing on peach bits or chomping into apples. Gluttony and sloth seem to go hand in hand as they lie in bed, surrounding themselves with food. But if they are spoiling themselves rotten, in accordance with their stated aims, that rottenness is not necessarily reflected in the food they eat. They eat crisp produce, cakes thick with icing, expensive hors d’oeuvres. At restaurants, they order extravagantly, choosing the most expensive and luxurious dishes, ordering appetisers and multiple entrees and dessert after dessert.
But all this consumption, Chytilová suggests, has a cost, even if the girls do not care to pay that cost themselves. The opening credits juxtapose footage of wartime explosions with footage of turning gears and cogs in machines: the war machine and the destruction wrought by human behaviour are seemingly inescapable. The women’s boredom and general lack of direction cause them to unleash their own form of anarchy, albeit a largely benign anarchy. Chytilová referred to the film as a sort of “morality play,” showing the destructiveness that takes place in everyday life. Is it all anarchy or irresponsibility? Are they revolting against the restrictive system, or orchestrating greater destruction, or resigning themselves to the chaos? They cause a stir in public spaces, but also give private performances for their own amusement, as if there is nobody else in the world besides them. The women often wonder if anything matters, and if they even exist at all; they eat therefore they are, it seems.
In addition to their conspicuous consumption making a political statement, it also makes a statement on female sexuality. What exactly does it mean for these women to be “spoiled”? Something that was once good has gone bad. Yet allowing themselves to be “spoiled” enables them to push back against what us deemed acceptable and respectable for women. It also allows them to take control of all their desires and defy decorum. They will keep eating and talking with their mouths full of cake. They will order another slice. Their appetites are ravenous, their stomachs and hearts bottomless pits –just as they order dish after dish at the restaurant, they rattle off a long list of former boyfriends or male acquaintances to call, a few for practically every letter of the alphabet. “I have a grand appetite. I love eating,” one Marie says. Though eating is out in the open, sex is never seen onscreen, and the girls themselves are coy about their own sexual histories. And while they vocally announce their hunger, they seem bored when talking about men or their desires for sex and romance. When one man desperately declares his love to one Marie as she stands naked, covering herself with his collection of preserved butterflies, she just asks if there is anything to eat. She does not want to be trapped in a case like that butterfly, with her wings pinned down. She wants to be able to chase after whatever her desires might be – for food or flesh.
Being “spoiled” is not a natural process of ageing for these women – it is an active choice to go bad at their own pace, to rebel against expectations of respectability and good taste. When they go out to eat with one of a series of nameless men, they say: “Don’t you realise we are still developing?” They do not want to be “spoiled” prematurely or controlled by the older men in their lives. Food and sex are intimately connected via this idea of control, and the women choose exactly how much of each they want. As an aspiring suitor declares his love over the phone, they chop up sausages, eggs, bananas, and pickles with scissors – cutting and consuming these phallic objects with complete nonchalance.
As they take bites of an array of foods and wield scissors haphazardly, the world continues to fall to pieces around them. Chytilová said that the fragmented form of the film, with its montage tendencies and unconventional structure, was meant to mirror its theme of destruction. Some images look like a cut-out magazine collage, and the jump cuts and colour changes within scenes destabilise fantasy versus reality and disrupt the gaze. Marie and Marie cut out images of flowers and food from magazines, and take scissors to each others’ forms. As the screen shatters and their heads float through space, nothing is off limits from the destruction.
Near the end of the film, the girls have a wild feast, their own personal Bacchanalia. Only the banquet they gobble up has seemingly been set out for Czech government officials. The feast itself was likely to be a shocking sight in the contemporary political landscape, given the food shortages plaguing Czechoslovakia at the time of the film’s release, and consuming the feast is perhaps a radical act. The feast devolves into a food fight, as the Maries fling giant slices of cake at one another and end up slathering themselves in white icing. But what is the result of all this destruction? “Is there any way to mend what’s been destroyed?” a typewriter writes out onscreen. The Maries eventually “reform” themselves and their desires, tidying up the mess of the feast while dressed in clothes fashioned out of newspapers.
Yet there is still another twist of expectations and conventions left. In the final scene, Chytilová dedicates Daisies to “those who get upset only over a stomped-upon bed of lettuce.” Youthful rebellion is not something to censure; instead of worrying about destroyed cakes, the target of our outrage should be the oppressive regime. These women are doing more than just dallying with liberation; they may let themselves be a bit spoiled, but they will continue to break down social conventions in the process, and not let any of their feminist energy or dissenting attitudes go to waste.
You can find Daisies on Criterion here and also watch on The Criterion Channel
by Katie Duggan
Katie Duggan is a recent graduate of Princeton. Hailing from New Jersey, she has a love-hate relationship with both the Garden State and the film Garden State. She loves musicals and coming-of-age stories, and her favorite movies include Rushmore, Harold and Maude, and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. You can follow her on Instagram @katdug_ or on Twitter @realkatieduggan.
Categories: Feminist Criticism