Bechdel Test Canon: Daisies
Originally pitched last year as a feminist response to the A.V. Club's New Cult Canon, this blog series seeks to engage with the Bechdel Test. As is often the case when creating something resembling a canon (even if you are critical of the term "canon"), my first series left a number of titles left out. Many of them were recommended to me by readers and fellow bloggers. Having to exclude such offerings in the first run proved that there were a number of films that passed the test and thus demonstrated the need for feminist evaluation. Plus I had so much fun with the first series that I jumped at the chance to do another one.
The second series of the Bechdel Test Canon operates under the same set of goals: to consider both commercial and independent films, to celebrate female, queer, and directors of color, and to explore a variety of international cinematic contexts that foreground a range of female lived experiences.
We begin the second series with Věra Chtytilová's Sedmikrásky (Daisies), which was released in the writer-director's native country, Czechoslovakia, in 1966 and received an American release the following year. The 74-minute feature tells the story of two young women named Marie (Ivana Karbanová and Jitka Cerhová). Out of boredom and annoyance toward their bourgeois existence, they decide to wreak havoc in a magnificently hedonistic fashion. They entertain a few gentlemen, leaving them in a lurch once they tire of them. They cut up in a dance hall. They harass waiters. They break into a banquet hall presumably outfitted as a dinner for communist leaders, gorge on the decadent spread, and throw a food fight before the film concludes with them trapped under a giant chandelier.
The director-approved version was finally released on DVD in 2009 with some restoration work and the English subtitles intact. Yet Daisies remains a touchstone of the Czechoslovakian New Wave for its innovative camera work, arresting application of a variety of color-graded film stocks, and narrative devices. It is told in a deceptively simple fashion, but does not seem to cohere to linear narration. What is more, Chtyilová is a feminist filmmaker who offered this film up as commentary for the limited opportunities and condescending expectations placed on young women. The girls are idle and listless, wearing bikinis while employing the monotone and mechanical movements of robots to announce their ennui to the camera.
When I reflect on Daisies, it is difficult for me not to transfer the film's plot and the deliberately insipid and gleefully destructive protagonists to a contemporary context. In some ways, this is an easy task. In their sundresses and flats with flowers in their hair, Marie and Marie bear more than a passing resemblance to both their British Mod contemporaries as well as the female hipsters who seek to emulate their style in the present. Cerhová is a dead ringer for Zooey Deschanel (with Fairuza Balk's delicious sneer). But as feminist critics from Angela McRobbie to Dayna Tortorici have pointed out, these women tend to have little subcultural capital, often relaying on their male counterparts for limited and mitigated entrée into art, film, and music scenes. They also speak to an ongoing frustration a number of contemporary filmmakers like Lena Dunham seem to have with both their immediate situation as well as their opaque goals for the future.
Thus the Maries' existential crisis and the solution they come to could easily represent the white female privilege that continues to dog feminist movements. Regressing to girlhood and throwing food fights may be argued as infantilizing, but it also suggests ample leisure time, a cushy class position, the opportunity to opt out of societal responsibilities, and the ability to age down that is not distributed equally to women and girls of color. The food fight, a beautifully extended sequence that serves as the film's liberating centerpiece, is something of a revelation to behold. The most recent example I could conjure that shares its spirit is Kristen Wiig's breakdown in Bridesmaids, wherein Annie's insecurities over her class position and her ongoing feud with society woman Helen (Rose Byrne) over their friendship with future bride Lillian (Maya Rudolph) comes into sharp relief when she loses it and trashes the lavish, Rococo-inspired bridal shower Helen put together, yet it is not nearly as epic in either the length or scope of the Maries' destruction.
(Food fight scene from Daisies)
Though it is difficult for women and girls to rebel against societal restraints, it is disproportionately easier for white women and girls to engage in such behavior. In fact, it may be difficult for some to imagine women of color acting so foolishly, at least within the index of popular images, which routinely regulates how we perceive gender, race, and class. Hence also my disdain toward hipster culture's post-racial politics, though I would marvel at seeing Aubrey Plaza, Hailee Steinfeld, Zoë Kravitz, and especially besties Demi Lovato and Selena Gomez lay waste to a reception hall in the film adaptations that unspool in my mind. Put it on Mickey's tab.
But we cannot remove Daisies from its original context. The film was banned in Chtytilová's home country on the grounds that both the characters and the production itself were wasteful and disrespectful to Communist values. Though Chtytilová argued that Daisies was socialist in spirit, she was not allowed to produce or release a film Czechoslovakia for nearly ten years. Such restrictions suggest that sexist assumptions about proper female decorum transcend political ideologies. In addition, the scepter of the physical, emotional, and systemic trauma caused by World War II haunts the film as surely as it did the director's homeland. Though the girls are introduced in bikinis and pigtails, the film's opening sequence includes shots of spinning flywheels and aerial footage of demolished acreage. Some girls have the privilege to opt out, the film suggests, but nothing seeks to level out and total society like mass, armed, ideologically evil destruction. If not a chandelier, surely war aircraft will do. Thus how Daisies plays out: a silly trifle demonstrating formal innovations, radical yet contentious gender politics, and harsh consequences.
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