Two young women in their bathing suits sit listlessly by a pool, overcome by the alienation and apathy frequently observed in the youth of 60s European cinema. They move in jerky doll fashion, each gesture accompanied by creaking noises that emphasise the metaphor. After a brief philosophical exchange on the state of things, they conclude that, as the world has become bad and corrupt, they shall be bad too. What follows is a string of joyous anarchic pranks in which Marie I and Marie II eat, drink, smoke, mock, play with and destroy everything they can lay their hands on.
Given the central characters’ rebellious streak and their mischievous manipulation of men, the film has often been seen as feminist. The two Maries certainly do not conform to traditional expectations of femininity: they gleefully stuff their faces, fool around and fall over disgracefully or uninhibitedly take their clothes off. They display a total lack of interest in romance, ignoring a lover’s maudlin, clichéd pleas, all of which feels like a refreshingly truthful and satisfying representation of women. But their insubordination is not just an act of female resistance against patriarchal society: Věra Chytilová’s Daisies (1966) is more Dada than women’s lib, and the two Maries are above all non-conformist individuals, outsiders to the grinding machinery of society. Echoing Tristan Tzara et al responding to the madness of the First World War by retreating to Zürich to conduct turbulent artistic experiments, the girls’ bad behaviour is a direct response to the state of the world. This is emphasised by the stylised images of explosions that open and close the film, circumscribing the girls’ escapades within references to war. The resonance is made all the stronger by the film’s avant-garde style, the interest in visual experimentation, the sonic and graphic play with words, the non-sensical narrative and the delectable juvenile humour.
According to the accompanying booklet written by Peter Hames, the moral message of the film, as well as Chytilová’s own position in relation to her protagonists, are the subjects of some debate, with various commentators arguing that the director originally intended the film to be a critique of the girls’ behaviour. After the final scene of Dionysiac excess during which they ravage a richly laid out banquet hall, the two Maries, under threat of death, are forced to promise that they will now be good. But as they go about clearing the mess they’ve made, they do so in a manner that is entirely subversive, scraping cake off the floor before piling the revolting mush back onto dishes, or arranging fragments of broken plates and glasses in a mockery of the elegant table they ruined. In spite of their repeated assertions that they are ‘good’ and will work hard, order is not restored, and under the pretence of compliance the girls are still agents of chaos and destruction.
This final scene has been read in many different ways, with some critics seeing in it the failure of the girls’ revolt, and others a deserved punishment for their behaviour. Whatever Chytilová’s original intentions may have been, it is undeniable that the film delights in the characters’ total freedom; their anarchic spirit proves irresistibly infectious, and the same playfulness and irreverence infuse the direction. The corruption of the world is what liberates the girls from the social norm, and this liberation from convention, whether filmic or social, unleashes an enormous amount of energy, both creative and destructive. This, more crucially than anything else in the film, is profoundly Dada. The voracious embrace of absolute freedom, and of the chaos that inevitably comes with it, is what makes Daisies so thoroughly energising and joyously inspiring.