Defiance and Compassion: The Films of Věra Chytilová runs at BFI Southbank until 16 March 2015.
When Věra Chytilová died last year at the age of 85, tributes remembered the director as a vibrant innovator, whose uncompromising vision in a decidedly male-run industry made her known as the ‘First Lady of Czech Cinema’. Her reputation rests predominantly on her free-spirited Daisies (1966), the film that ties her in most closely with the new wave that her nation’s cinematic history has been framed around. Undeniably a masterpiece, it has – due to distribution issues – also been the only work of hers many fans have seen. That’s set to change with BFI Southbank’s March retrospective of 13 of her films, which together shed much light on her singular approach to the battleground of gender.
She was a key member of the Czech New Wave
Věra Chytilová formed her career when Czechoslovakia was under Soviet rule, and the politically charged climate deeply impacted her work. After working as a fashion model and film production clapper girl, she was accepted into Prague’s renowned film school FAMU, which brought her together with other directing talents such as Jiří Menzel and Jan Němec. They made films with a spirit of dissent and black humour that satirised life under the communist regime, and collectively became known as the Czech New Wave.
This flourishing of creative expression was part of a period of liberalisation that culminated in the 1968 Prague Spring – Alexander Dubček’s attempt to bring “socialism with a human face”. It didn’t last long. Soviet-led tanks rolled in to crush the reforms, bringing a cultural crackdown. A number of Chytilová’s contemporaries including Miloš Forman left for abroad, but she continued the struggle to work at home. The state-controlled nature of film funding meant falling foul of the authorities left few alternatives to get projects off the ground, and in creative frustration Chytilová at times resorted to working on TV commercials under a pseudonym.
Her best-known film was banned
In 1966, Chytilová made her second feature Daisies – a playful riot of mischief and joyous, kinetic experimentation. Its giggling accomplices Marie I and Marie II (non-professionals Jitka Cerhová and Ivana Karbanová) agree that since the world has gone bad they’ll be bad too. Their pranks wreak havoc around Prague, as they leave the sugar daddies who dine them abandoned with huge bills, and scandalise a dance hall with their beer-stealing antics.
The mayhem culminates in a debauched food fight, as the friends lay waste to a banquet that’s been set out for party officials, and swing from a giant chandelier. This irreverent carnival of excess and destruction was the antithesis of state ideology glorifying worker productivity and promising a bright utopian future for heroes of developed political consciousness. The authorities banned Daisies, citing the wastage of food as particularly reprehensible. An end-title dedicated the film “to all those whose sole source of indignation is a trampled-on trifle” – a barb aimed at hypocritical officials who would take offence at such scenes, while turning a blind eye to greater evils.
She embraced surrealism and black comedy
The playful, anything-goes experimentation of Daisies, with its psychedelic onslaught of coloured filters and fragmented editing, made it the most formally vibrant and daring film of the Czech New Wave. Chytilová’s taste for visual symbolism and multi-layered associations was echoed in her next film The Fruit of Paradise, on which she again joined forces with co-writer and costume designer Ester Krumbachová, and cinematographer (and husband) Jaroslav Kučera.
Made up of absurdist, surreal episodes, these films drew on nature for their floods of striking imagery and abstracting patterns, and featured some of cinema’s most startling opening sequences. The glowing texture of autumn-coloured leaves and bark flickering in double-exposures on the skin of a naked couple amid a feverish chatter of sound kicks off The Fruit Of Paradise. In Daisies, black-and-white archival imagery of warplanes strafing the ground sets the scene for a world ripped out of joint.
Chytilová’s films became less overtly experimental in later years, but this did not signal a mellowing of subversive intent, as they parodied the mass-appeal comedies that had come to proliferate in the post-Soviet era. The boorish jokes and sexual banter of 1998’s Traps set out the misogynistic milieu of the advertising agency it satirises, while 1993’s The Inheritance or Fuckoffguysgoodday also pokes fun at brash consumption.
Her films are blistering attacks on patriarchy
Following the lives of two women – a gymnast in gruelling training, and a dissatisfied housewife – Chytilová’s 1963 feature debut Something Different had explored the expectations and strictures of female gender roles. The lot of women in a patriarchal society of double standards and predatory sexualisation was a constant theme in her films, and was often turned on its head by female protagonists with no qualms about going to extremes, giving her work its acerbic, black-humoured bite.
Ageing lechers determined to have their virility affirmed through conquest are the brunt of much of Chytilová’s satire. Raised a Catholic, she reworked the Garden of Eden myth into a feverishly bizarre swirl of sensory impressions in The Fruit of Paradise. In the similarly hallucinogenic and frequently hilarious The Very Late Afternoon of the Faun, a ‘determined erotic’ tries to stave off his advancing years by desperately careening around Prague to pick up young lovers, as pensioners try to claim him as their own. In Traps, a sense of sexual entitlement leads to rape, as a Prague politician and his smarmy ad executive friend force themselves on a young vet who has run out of gas on a country road. She uses her professional skills to deliver an extreme, surgical comeuppance.
She wanted to be known only as an ‘individual’
While producing films with strong feminist concerns, Chytilová remained opposed to self-identifying as a ‘feminist’ throughout her career, and could be brusque when asked to clarify her position by the media. Aligning herself instead with rule-breaking ‘individualism’, she was not unusual for this reticence in a central Europe in which the activism of feminism tended to be ridiculed or belittled and viewed as a posturing western import, if it entered the public conversation at all (acclaimed Hungarian director Márta Mészáros, while producing work of a feminist bent, also rejected the label).
Five to start with…
Something Different (1963)
The Very Late Afternoon of the Faun (1983)
The Fruit of Paradise (1969)
A saturation of overstated, vacant ideology had been part of life’s drudgery under a totalitarian state and had made Czech dissidents deeply suspicious of slogans and gathering cries of any kind. The only female in her film school class, then a woman director among men, she undoubtedly wanted to be taken seriously without the reductive pre-judgment of stigmatisation any such vaunted allegiance could bring.
Already fighting to work amid a complex stranglehold of censorship in which even the country’s most revered dissident upholders of truth, such as future president Václav Havel, admitted having no time for feminism, Chytilová resisted defining her work through labels and left it to speak for itself. As she says in Jasmina Blažević’s documentary portrait of her life Journey: “I was daring enough to want absolute freedom, even if it was a mistake.”