In 1966, Czechoslovakia may have been the most intriguingly incongruous place on the planet. The Iron Curtain seemed impermeable. Detente, let alone glasnost, was not a word anyone knew. Yet an Irony Curtain was happily fluttering in the breeze of at least one Eastern Bloc country, thanks to the Prague Spring.
Film was a major contributor to that upwelling of cultural invention and political questioning. Such mainstays of the Czech New Wave as Ivan Passer, Milos Forman, and Jiri Menzel were making names for themselves. Their films drew on a long Czech tradition of artistic experiment and subversively off-kilter comedy (think of “The Good Soldier Schweik” and Kafka, who never gets the credit he should for having the sense of humor he did). Prague had also long been a hotbed of cabaret, animation, and puppetry.
There aren’t any puppets in “Daisies,” Vera Chytilová’s unrelentingly anarchic comedy from that year. But the two unrelentingly goofy young women in it (Ivana Karbanová and Jitka Cerhová) could be on strings, the way they bounce around and bump up against the external world. Their raccoon-thick eye makeup makes them look a bit like Mary Quant clowns. Either way, they’re more caricatures than characters, and the film that (barely) contains them is like a live-action cartoon, overly full of visual, aural, and conceptual trickery.
“Daisies,” a new 35mm print of which plays Friday through Sunday at the Brattle, is the ethos of the Prague Spring turbocharged. It’s inventive. It’s innovative. It’s surreal. It’s subversive. It’s even lyrical (in an at-the-top-of-its-lungs sort of way). It’s also a mess, but Chytilová would probably take that as a compliment.
Over the course of the film’s 76-minute running time, Chytilová doesn’t so much play with the medium as have it committed. She includes just about every device available to ’60s filmmakers — and maybe even a few that weren’t. She keeps shifting back and forth between black and white and color film stocks. She mismatches shots. She speeds up footage. She drops out sound. She includes animation. She overexposes. She underexposes. She uses filters and split screen and fractured screen. “We can try anything once,” the two young women say in unison at one point, then burst out laughing. If ever there was a case of actors speaking for the director, that line is it.
Clearly, Chytilová knew her Godard. But she’s just as interested in slapstick comedy (the soundtrack includes both Dixieland and a bit of Keystone Cops-style music) and knockabout farce. Pies don’t get thrown, but slices of cake do. There are moments when “Daisies” seems to consist of outtakes from an “I Love Lucy” episode on acid. The film is full of goofy jokes. (“Railroad man, where does this train stop?” “At the next station, I guess.” Maybe it works better in Czech?) Some of the jokes are funny. Some aren’t. But the women find them all hilarious.
“Daisies” is a series of skits, though “skit” makes the film sound a lot more structured than it is. We see the women eat (a lot). We see them at train stations. We see (and hear) them being beseeched over the telephone by a suitor. They flounce around in lingerie, bathing suits, and low-cut dresses. There’s even one scene involving butterfly specimens strategically placed over what Monty Python liked to call “naughty bits” (there’s a definite before-the-fact Pythonish affinity).
Chytilová was pushing up against the limits of what was sexually permissible for a Czech filmmaker. Some of the food scenes, actually, are racier than the near-nudity. They’re also slyly political. The climax of “Daisies” is an extended set piece where the ladies sneak into a banquet room and unleash themselves on the many delicacies that have been laid out. At one point, they even sashay down the length of the table, merrily walking on the food items. The sight of a stiletto heel going through some hors d’oeuvres or a roast remains unnerving even now, almost half a century after “Daisies” was made. It’s an image worthy of the young Bunuel. But what an affront it must have been to watch such a thing in a supposedly classless society, where few people outside the Communist Party didn’t suffer some sort of material deprivation. “A revolution is not a dinner party,” Mao said. No, it’s not. But trashing one can be pretty revolutionary.