Censorship, determination and surrealism – the BFI retrospective tells the whole story of a true avant-garde legend
When Czech directing legend Věra Chytilová died last year, tributes focused on her early film Daisies. A surreal onslaught of vibrant anarchy and free-spirited experimentation, it’s undeniably a masterpiece – and due to years of censorship and distribution issues the only film of hers many fans have seen. That’s about to change in London, as the BFI kicks off a March retrospective of 11 films by the uncompromising renegade. Here’s what you need to know.
A IS FOR ATTITUDE
Věra Chytilová was never afraid to tell it like it is – and her films called out social hypocrisy where she saw it. Her abrasive, no-bullshit style did not go down well with an oppressive socialist regime that preferred dutily productive heroines on screen and sycophants behind the scenes. “I was daring enough to want absolute freedom, even if it was a mistake,” she said in Jasmina Blažević’s documentary portrait of her life Journey.
B IS FOR BANNED
Chytilová’s second feature, 1966’s surreal Daisies, was banned by the authorities, who made it very difficult for her to work for nearly a decade after.
Creatively frustrated, she resorted to directing TV commercials under a pseudonym, until in desperation she wrote a letter to the Czech president countering the party’s view she lacked a positive attitude to socialism.
C IS FOR CZECH NEW WAVE
Chytilová was part of the 60s Czech New Wave – a group of directors including Jiří Menzel and Miloš Forman who came together at famed Prague film school FAMU and made films that with an outpouring of creativity and often black humour satirised daily life in communist Czechosolovakia.
D IS FOR DAISIES
Two rebellious youths Marie I and Marie II decide that since the world has gone bad, they will be bad too, and wreak playful havoc around Prague in Chytilová’s best-known masterpiece Daisies. A vibrant, psychedelic onslaught of spontaneous movement, stylistic ruptures and tinted filters, it was the Czech New Wave’s most daringly experimental film.
E IS FOR EXTREMES
Chytilová, with an almost punk sensibility, presents us with women that abandon all decorum and go to extremes in reaction against social hypocrisy, turning the tables on those who would take advantage of them, in her fable-like films. Hurtling toward crime, violence and even death, their acts of defiance, as ill-fated Traps protagonist Lenka says, take “no half measures”.
F IS FOR FOOD FIGHT
The top food fight on film has to be the carnival of destruction that ends Daisies, as its giggling accomplices knock back Johnnie Walker and lay waste to an entire banquet, smashing glasses and grinding platefuls of food with their high heels before swinging on a giant chandelier. In explaining their ban of the film, the Soviet authorities singled out its decadent wastage of food as especially reprehensible.
G IS FOR GENDER ROLES
Chytilová’s feature debut Something Different follows the daily lives of two women – one a champion gymnast in gruelling training, and the other a dissatisfied housewife. She examined the expectations and hypocrisies surrounding gender roles throughout her career.
H IS FOR HIV
Chytilová was one of the first filmmakers in the world to tackle the subject of HIV and AIDS. In her 1989 movie Tainted Horseplay a group of womanisers gets a wake-up call when one of them tests positive.
I IS FOR INDIVIDUAL
Having developed her work under a regime that spouted ideology meaninglessly and a society in which feminism was not taken seriously and was stigmatised if talked about at all, Chytilová avoided labels. While making work with strong feminist concerns, she was reluctant to self-identify as a feminist, instead referring to herself as an “individual” who broke rules she didn’t believe in.
J IS FOR JOKES
Absurdist, black humour is a thread that runs through all of Chytilová's work, and was her preferred means of dissent. Her later films were less experimental, but she didn’t lose her will to stir things up. Just take the title of her 90s takedown of brash consumerism, The Inheritance or Fuckoffguysgoodday.
K IS FOR KRUMBACHOVA
Any film is teamwork – and Ester Krumbachová was one of Chytilová’s most important collaborators. A costume and production designer and the co-writer of her more avant-garde, surreal films Daisies and Fruit of Paradise, she had a significant hand in their look and feel, as well as on other Czech New Wave classics like Jaromil Jireš’s bonkers erotic fairy tale Valerie and her Week of Wonders. “Costume is not about clothing. Costume is an event,” she once said.
L IS FOR LECHERS AND SUGAR DADDIES
In The Very Late Afternoon of the Faun, a contender for most tripped-out film of the 80s, an ageing lecher careens around a swooningly hallucinogenic Prague fruitlessly trying to pick up young women, as pensioners try to claim him as their own. Sex-obsessed, self-entitled men often get their comeuppance in her pitch-black comedies, whether it’s sugar daddies tricked into huge restaurant bills (Daisies) or rapists surgically incapacitated (Traps).
M IS FOR MODEL
Chytilová had worked as a fashion model, and in her 1962 graduate film Strop drew on this experience to portray in a cinéma-vérité style a model who feels hemmed in by the superficial and repetitive aspects of her profession.
N IS FOR NATURE IMAGERY
Abandoning straightforward plots for multi-layered symbolism, bizarre episodes and vibrant floods of imagery in early films such as Daisies and Fruit of Paradise, Chytilová drew on nature for strange beauty and absurdist humour. Peacocks stalk about, a butterfly collection is makeshift clothing, giant leaves pattern shots and fields of flowers backdrop bizarre hijinks.
O IS FOR OPENING SEQUENCES
Chytilová gave us some of the most stunning opening sequences of cinema. Fever dream Fruit of Paradise shows an Adam and Eve naked but for the glowing texture of autumn-coloured leaves, bark and pebbles - a flicker of double-exposures produced with her cinematographer husband Jaroslav Kučera. In Daisies archival imagery of warplanes strafing the ground sets the scene for destruction.
P IS FOR PRAGUE SPRING
The Prague Spring was an opening up of the Czech political climate allowing greater freedom for artists that saw the New Wave flourish and bold films like Daisies made. It didn’t last long – and when the Soviet tanks rolled in to crush it in 1968 there was a clampdown on free cultural expression. Many of Chytilová’s fellow directors left the country, but she stayed and raised a family, while continuing her struggle to work.
Q IS FOR QUEEN
Věra Chytilová is recognised as the foremost female filmmaker to have emerged from her country. Dubbed the First Lady of Czech Cinema, she has influenced many with her bold, adventurously avant-garde work. “It changed my life,” US filmmaker Marie Losier has said of seeing Daisies.
R IS FOR RAPE-REVENGE
Rape-and-revenge narratives had become a staple of the exploitation genre in the 70s. Chytilová used such a scenario in her 1998 black comedy Traps, in which a young vet draws on her professional skills for retribution after a Prague politician and his smarmy ad exec friend assault her when she runs out of gas on a country road.
S IS FOR SURREALISM
Dreamlike encounters, the strangeness of everyday objects, free association, symbolism and magical transformations – Chytilová’s multi-layered films are drenched in the hallucinatory power and joy in absurdity of Surrealism.
T IS FOR TEMPTATION
The forbidden apple appears in Fruit of Paradise, which reinvents the myth of Adam and Eve into a kaleidoscope of sensory impressions, bizarre encounters with lurking figures and feverish, chattery soundscapes. Raised a Catholic, Chytilová often drew on religious symbolism, though the loopy images of her films – from a frantic peacock to a lecherous, crimson-suited guy falling off a bike – are hard to reduce to any set meaning.
U IS FOR UNCOMPROMISING
“I have no desire to cuddle my audience,” Chytilová once said. The endings of her films offer little consolation. An antidote to the idealistic utopian visions of socialist propaganda, which promised bright futures for heroes of developed political consciousness, her rebel protagonists are more likely to be crushed by the trap of a cruel society, leading some to accuse her of nihilism.
V IS FOR VEILED MEANINGS
When censorship is rife, filmmakers are forced to find creative ways to slip social protest into their work. Chytilová’s films are rich with ambiguous symbolism that can be read in various ways. But the end title of Daisies was hard to mistake as a jab at hypocritical officials who would lose their shit at the food-fight anarchy depicted, while elsewhere turning a blind eye: "Dedicated to all those whose sole source of indignation is a trampled-on trifle.”
W IS FOR WOMEN
The only woman in her class at film school, Chytilová achieved success in a Czech industry that was heavily male-dominated. She often cast non-professionals (including the leads Jitka Cerhová and Ivana Karbanová of Daisies) to tell stories from a female viewpoint.
X IS FOR EXPERIMENTATION
Chytilová’s films were the most formally adventurous of the Czech New Wave. While their outlook seemed pessimistic to critics, a sheer joy in the medium itself pulses through every shot. Dizzying, fragemented editing and explosions of colour characterised her vibrant, playful style. In Daisies, this energetic rejection of raw reality bursts out at the audience in a meta moment, as the rebellious girls take their scissors to the frame itself.
Y IS FOR YOUTH GONE WILD
Teenage rebellion was not a subject that sat well with the censors of communist Czechoslovakia, who sought glowing examples of heroic youths, and the debauched antics of the beer-stealing, prank-pulling girls of Daisies showed a joy in rule-breaking that made them two of the Czech New Wave’s most infamous, refreshingly free-spirited renegades.
Z IS FOR ZEITGEIST
Chytilová’s black-humoured, satirical Daisies captured the New Wave spirit of their era – but while her political dissent chimed with the age, her radical feminist subversion was ahead of what society seemed ready for. Many of her films have long been undistributed and hard to see – but now is the chance.
A retrospective of Věra Chytilová films runs at the BFI Southbank from March 1 – 17