What is Daisies? A series of sketches? A social satire? A live art performance? A documentary, of sorts? It’s all of those, and more, and if that makes it sound dull or intimidating, it’s very far from being either: it’s a maddening, exhilarating, giddy, goofy, deeply serious playground of a movie that’s influenced films as different as Celine And Julie Go Boating, A Clockwork Orange, Frances Ha and Marie Antoinette without being directly comparable to any of them.
The film’s director Věra Chytilová once called it “a philosophical documentary in the form of a farce,” which is perhaps the most accurate description. Its two central characters, named only Marie I and Marie II, are two friends who declare at the beginning that “Everything’s going bad in the world. So we’re going bad as well.” The rest of the film is a series of sequences, linked with elegant jump cuts and animations, each a comic assault on accepted ideas of “good behaviour”: disrupting an elegant restaurant, teasing the older men who try to seduce them and, most spectacularly, destroying a lavish civic banquet with gleeful violence and delight.
At the heart of the film is a repeated mantra, “Can’t you smell it? How volatile life is?”, which reflects life in Czechoslovakia in 1966. The country was officially Communist, the government doing its best to enforce “good behaviour” in the hope of averting what eventually happened: the Soviet invasion of 1968. Unsurprisingly, this cheerfully anarchic movie was met with official disapproval, particularly for its apparent waste of food at a time of austerity — a point that was already acknowledged by the film’s bitter endframe: “This film is dedicated to all those whose sole source of indignation is a trampled-on trifle,” played out over footage of war and atom bombs.
The dark heart of Daisies has a resonance in today’s austerity Britain, where the smallest pleasures of the poor — drinking, gambling, big TVs — are repeatedly demonised while vast corporations dodge their taxes, personal freedoms are sacrificed and British men die without trial in Guantanamo Bay. George Osborne’s repeated mantra about the virtue of “hard-working families” is echoed in the ironic last words of Marie and Marie, “If we work hard we’ll be happy and good,” as if any family’s misfortune is purely the product of indolence, and as bourgeois values are reasserted, the world set back to rights.
Daisies is a truly original movie: fast, funny and full of delights, grinning with joy as it knocks out your teeth. For all its artificiality, it feels real, and truthful and alive, and for all its deliberate distancing effects Marie and Marie remain likeable, even sympathetic as they tease and torment their many suitors, and undermine the “right” way to behave. It’s that rare thing: an idealistic satire, and a magical, memorable film.