This new release explores Věra Chytilová’s early 1960s documentary-inflected pre-Daisies work.
‘It’s like guarding a bagful of fleas,’ says the chaperone at the textile-factory workers’ dance. The young employees jive to a rendition of ‘O Sole Mio’ with new Czech lyrics, which have special poignancy for Jana, who is about to lose her boyfriend to the army. She’s been creating trouble, both on the job and in the girls’ dormitory where she lives, boarding-school style. No smoking, no flirting, no sneaking out to the cinema, and up for work at 4:30 am – those are the rules. A subjective camera represents the point of view of Eva, a new recruit, making the audience literally share her newcomer’s perspective. We’re in her shoes as she first enters her new living quarters, where the girls stare, tease, and talk directly to the camera in close-up. We listen in on Eva’s private opinions about everything that she observes: ‘Go on, eat something, you’re thin as a rake,’ she thinks, as the dorm’s chubbiest member snacks away. ‘Strange, women dancing together,’ remarks her inner voice, as she watches her co-workers practising for the next party.
Fans of Věra Chytilová’s famously experimental and anarchic Daisies (1966) are in for a treat with another release of her work on DVD by Second Run. Last year they released two later films, Fruit of Paradise (1970) and Traps (1998), which took Daisies’ fantasy and feminism even further. This release of Something Different (1963) and A Bagful of Fleas (1962) takes us back to the beginning of Chytilová’s career.
Something Different presents a parallel montage of the lives of two women: stay-at-home mum V?ra and professional gymnast Eva Bosáková. The housewife is played by Chytilová’s friend Věra Uzelacová, with her actual son, Milda, as her naughty little boy. The athlete is shown taking part in a real-life international championship, but there are also obviously scripted sections of her story, just like the fictional narrative of Věra and her family. Their lives only intersect briefly at the very beginning of the film, in a transition from the opening sequence of Eva competing, to the living room of Věra’s house where Milda is watching the competition on TV. Chytilová’s talent for rhythmic editing, geometric framing and inventive perspective is already in evidence. Viewers might expect a film of contrasts between the mother in her private sphere and the gymnast in the public eye, but the women share a similar degree of boredom and frustration, and both briefly resist the confines of routine, expectation and isolation.
Compared with Daisies, these early films show more of the influence of documentary realism. The young factory workers in A Bagful of Fleas are non-professional actors improvising their lines; real foremen and officials preside over the Works Committee meeting where Jana is pulled up for bad behaviour. Even so, a gulf in attitude separates this from other films in the Czech New Wave, such as Milos Forman’s A Blonde in Love (1965); there’s also less of Jiří Menzel’s whimsical good humour, and more of Daisies’ knowing cynicism. Both A Bagful of Fleas and Something Different emphasise the oppressive narrowness of their characters’ situation.