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Food fights and ‘Daisies’: rebelling against censorship

The explosive world of Czechoslovakian cinema.

Art by Chloe Callow.

Věra Chytilová’s 1966 film Daisies has stuck with me since I saw it at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 2019. During the screening, a man in the theatre burped loudly and I was struck by the thought that perhaps he was a performance artist hired to comment on the film’s wonderfully grotesque dining scenes. If burping in a cinema was ever appropriate, it would be during Daisies.

When I think of this film I think of excess. Orgasmic and explosive collages of flowers, metal, pinned butterflies, newspaper cuttings, and an overwhelming feeling of mischief. A film which celebrates gleeful social impropriety, feasting and making an awful mess; Daisies is one of the most expressive and assertive films I have ever seen. Yet there are quiet subtleties in Daisies that are characteristic of Czechoslovakian cinema during the 1960s. The two main characters’ ecstatic rampage is not just pure hedonism; it serves as a diversion from the subversive social messaging of the film. 

In the 1960s, there was a rebirth in Czechoslovakian cinema, termed the ‘Czech New Wave’ or the ‘Czech Film Miracle’. Following amendments to censorship regulations from 1962, filmmakers had greater freedom to experiment with the content and style of their work, and they became the beneficiaries of increased funding. The nationalised film industry began to recognise the public’s growing distaste for formulaic social realist cinema. Alongside the government’s attempts to implement ‘de-Stalinization’ policies, this contributed to the loosening restrictions. However, there were still strict censorship bodies in place to prevent anything too politically or socially abrasive. Film productions were monitored and required approval before release and distribution. Many productions were abandoned, and many films banned. 

The idea of relaxed regulations invited material that challenged conservatism, yet this kind of content was rarely permissible and as a result, filmmakers began to include it in their films inconspicuously. This usually involved political allegories removed from a clear representational link to reality, or in many cases transgressions from the social order conveyed in small gestures and breakages, or abstract and obfuscated qualities. 

Chytilová, along with filmmakers like Jaromil Jireš, Juraj Herz and Pavel Juráček, embraced surrealism as an ambiguous form inspired by Czechoslovakian folk art. The wider Prague Group’s approach to surrealism was based on ‘imaginative realism’ rather than the ‘departure from reality’ common to French notions of the movement. This required the formal qualities of realism to be present but altered to evoke a feeling of heightened engagement with materiality. As filmmakers were interested in leaving behind social realist cinema, the move to this form of surrealism was a departure but not one utterly disconnected from the films of the decade preceding. The Czech New Wave saw a distinct emphasis on the displacement and breaking of objects as a gesture to more significant social or political ruptures.

Restricted by the censorship bodies of the day, filmmakers tended to represent queerness through quiet destabilisations of heteronormative spaces, materials and objects. While some representations passed ‘under the radar’ of censorship, others were removed entirely, leaving a noticeable, unfilled space in the body of the film. Responding to films with uncertain meanings, the Ideology Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia stated in 1967: “A work of art must speak for itself. If explanatory notes of an author’s intentions are needed, or instructions to understand them involve long discussions, there is probably something missing.” While watching Daisies, it does feel that something is ‘missing,’ but this is not a flaw in the filmmaking – it is a sign of the restrictions placed upon it. Censorship may be read on queer terms, as it pushes representation into subtext and negative space. Eve Sedgwick’s notion of ‘smuggling’ queerness into literature acknowledges an often-unfilled space inviting discussion and analysis. In this context, queerness may be found in the fissure of something removed, of smothered words, missing pieces and hidden identities.

Chytilová’s film is located at a historical point of formal abstraction and material displacement, and in the struggle between free expression and strict censorship. The two main characters of Daisies – both named Marie – have an ambiguous relationship. They describe themselves at one point as sisters but this is complicated by their endless lying about the nature of their relationships with others, always fumbling between uninterested acquaintance, familial and romantic ties. 

Lukáš Skupa’s 2018 article Perfectly unpredictable: early work of Věra Chytilová in the light of censorship and production reports provides an insight into the director’s relationship with censorship boards at the time. He writes that Chytilová’s filmmaking process typically involved significant changes to scripts and proposed content throughout the course of production, and therefore the end result undermined official systems of approval. This was true for Daisies, as Chytilová cut sections of her work on the recommendation of censorship reports, yet there was a delay in the release of the film as elongated periods of discussion on banning distribution halted its screening until 1967 when it was granted limited distribution.

One of the requests from the censorship bodies during the early stages of production was that the director remove scenes which suggested a lesbian subtext; it seems some of the more obvious scenes were then omitted. This included a scene in which the two Maries caress each other which slowly turns to a playful fight – a section which disappeared in the shooting script. The material was a point of conflict between Chytilová and the censorship bodies, with the looming threat of an abandoned production if she did not revise the script. 

In the final product, their relationship is transposed instead into food strewn on the bed, stolen glances at women’s reflections in mirrors, shared baths, and ignored male lovers. Chytilová takes a subtle approach, seemingly at odds with the bold expressiveness of her filmmaking style. The two Maries’ undefined relationship crosses unmistakably into something more intimate through their engagement with food as a tangible and bodily material. A clear representation of sexuality is refocused into destabilisations of heteronormative objects and spaces. 

The women pose a distinct threat to upper class social space, particularly within the extravagant realms of leisurely dining where they are a source of commotion and disruption. The Maries unsettle heteronormative groupings wherever they go and blur the boundaries between the dining room and the bedroom, transposing the sensorial and erotic with a different kind of bodily encounter – that of consumption and feasting. In the final banquet scene, food is crushed in fists, chickens are torn apart with greasy hands, eggs are kneaded and squashed, and the Maries walk on the table, their heels crushing platters of food. There is an exhilarating release of repressed desire for material touch and for the childhood longing to play with one’s food. This is both an uncomfortable scene to watch, and a delightful enactment of social transgression.

Although Chytilová’s redirection of the film’s portrayal of sexuality was forced by the censorship bodies, it draws attention to the often-codified nature of queer existence in film. It begs us to think of regulated and restricted representations which are reflective of a wider treatment of non-normative sexualities and identities; the censored form hiding a struggle for visibility. Daisies engages a uniquely abstract articulation of sexuality. One Marie muses to the other, “Why does one say ‘I love you’? Do you understand? Why can’t one say, for example, ‘Egg.’”

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