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Films by Vĕra Chytilová

Posted by keith1942 on April 11, 2015

vera-chytilova

Chytilová was one of the important filmmakers in the Czech New Wave and one of the outstanding women filmmakers in Europe at that time: fortunately less of a rarity now than then. Her most famous film is Daisies (Sedmikrásky. 1966). The film is a collage of colour, editing and avant-garde techniques: it follows the adventures of two young women. The film appears anarchic and Chytilová ’s work is often described as ‘Dadaist’. Certainly this was the most radical of the films to emerge in 1960s Czechoslovakia: the authorities tried to prevent its release. It subverted the prevailing cultural and gender politics, though Chytilová resisted the label of ‘feminist’. The film was screened at an earlier Leeds International Film Festival: unfortunately this used a DVD rather than film or DCP, and one of the screenings had a live musical accompaniment! But Chytilová ’s use of sound is equally important as her play with images.

So it was a pleasure when the Hyde Park Picture House screened two of her earlier student films, courtesy of the Czech Centre London and the Czech National Film Archive. The films have been restored from the original camera negatives by the Imagine Ritrovato in Bologna; fast becoming the foremost European laboratory for the production of such work. The result looked and sounded good and the two films [both from 1962] were an absorbing but also entertaining 85 minutes.

The first film was A Bagful of Fleas (Pytel blech). This was set among a group of young women working in a cotton-spinning factory and housed together in a women’s dormitory. The film opens with the arrival of a new worker [‘fresher} Eva. And she is the narrative voice of the film, whilst the focus is a young and unruly worker, Jana. The film takes in the highly organised ‘socialist’ culture and working environment. There is a disciplinary meeting involving not just manager and foremen, but other workers. The title of the film comes from a disparaging comment by an older man, some sort of supervisor, on the group of girls. We see the girls at work, in their leisure and with their interests in popular song and [predictably] men.

What gives the films its distinctive quality is the form and style. Much of the film has that fresh, observational use of the camera, which was one of the hallmarks of the Czech New Wave. But the film also has a mainly subjective viewpoint. We see characters and events from Eva’s point-of-view: her voice provides an intermittent commentary on the soundtrack and sequences are often shown through a subjective camera. In fact, only at the end of the film do we see Eva herself. One can see here already some of the tropes and motifs that were to appear in Chytilová ‘s mature films.

This cinematic approach was even more apparent in Ceiling (Strop). This film follows approximately 24 hours in the life of a medical student also working as a model, Martha. We see her modelling and on the cat walk: at mealtimes and with friends, and at parties. The film in some ways parallels Agnes Varda’s very fine Cleo From 5 to 7 (Cléo de 5 À 7, 1961). However, the Czech film differs in two important respects: Cleo, and the audience, learn of the problem that preoccupies her throughout the film right at the outset: whilst with Martha it is over halfway through the film that we learn of her pre-occupation. In addition Cleo encounters a sympathetic young soldier: all of the man in Ceiling struck me as unsympathetic.

The style with both films is also very different. Ceiling uses the elliptical editing that was also apparent in A Bagful of Fleas and which is the hallmark of Chytilová ‘s later films. Whilst Ceiling still has an observational feel there is a greater use of camera and sound techniques which typify avant-garde film. There is a restless camera, jump cuts and a range of angles and distances. The sound ranges through the diegetic and non-diegetic, both with noise and music. And some of the film has a strongly subjective feel and some a more distant presentation. Some critics have made comparisons with the films of Michelangelo Antonioni: what I was most reminded of was L’Eclisse, which itself only came out in 1962. And there is an impressive night-time scene as Martha wanders the urban spaces, which reminded me forcibly of Claude Chabrol’s Les Bonnes Femmes  (1960). This is not necessarily a question of a direct influence. There are common stylistic and thematic tropes across the European New Waves, as they responded to often common and dominant cinematic conventions and common cultural restrictions.

Dina Iordanova (2003) suggests that the Czech New Wave, whilst often quite divergent, did share certain common traits;

The specific manifestations of the Czechoslovak New Wave style can be reduced to an idiosyncratic combination of several characteristics. These include the interest in contemporary topics (often tackled with documentary authenticity), the subtle humour (often bordering on the absurd), the use of avant-garde and editing techniques (often deployed with astonishing persistence) and the attention to psychological detail (often better revealed in the exploration of interactions within a group rather stand in studies of individual protagonists).

Of course, Iordanova is writing about more than style here, but much of her description can be seen in these two films by Chytilová. The one point to emphasise is that A Bagful of Fleas is very much about group interaction whilst Ceiling is a study of an individual protagonist.

Fruits

Someone remarked after the screening that it was ‘worth turning out on a Sunday to see these films’. Absolutely. The Hyde Park, a month of so later, also screened one of Chytilová ‘s major features, Fruits of Paradise (Ovoce stromu rajských jíme,1970) on April 30th. Possibly her most avant-garde work, the film uses an extraordinary mix of unconventional imagery and sound: whilst the ‘plot’ offers a symbolic treatment of gender issues. The title is variously translated to include either ‘Paradise’ or ‘Garden’. The former makes more sense because the wealth of illusions include quite a few with biblical resonances. We are in a garden with a central focus on a tree, referencing the book of Genesis. The film spends a lot of time focusing on fruit and vegetables and is reminiscent in style of the Czech Mannerist movement. There are a cat and an owl and mirrors, stones and bikes. At times it as if we are in Alice in Wonderland and then Through the Looking Glass. In this tale one protagonist is a serial killer: the dark centre of so much of modern cinema. There is a shadowy noir mansion. As with her earlier films Chytilová offers impressive visual and musical tropes, which fill out the settings and symbolism. The colour palette is dominated by reds and whites. And finally we find characters buried on a beach recalling Un Chien Andalu. This is appropriate because this film feels more Surrealist than Dadaist. Whilst at times it seems to delve into dreams it is also constructed very much around desire. The excellent Time Out concludes on this film with:

It is both of its times and outside the clock in its intent.

It did not go down well with the establishment of the time: Chytilová was banned from filmmaking for six years.

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