Vĕra Chytilová 1929 – 2014

at the Southbank NFT 1-17 March 2015
and soon, perhaps, a cinema near you

by Angela Martin

Scene from Daisies (1966, dir. Vĕra Chytilová)There are 13 of Chytilová‘s 29 films as director in the NFT season, mounted a year after her death. For those of us who, hitherto, have only known Daisies /Sedmikrásky (1966), this is something of a cornucopia some 40 years since the film was first shown here within the context of 1970s feminism.

Chytilová was decidedly equivocal towards that movement, seeing herself, rather as “a human”, and had already set her personal sail against prevailing currents in Czechoslovakia; the NFT season is entitled Defiance and Compassion with good reason. It opened with Jasmina Blažević’s documentary, The Journey/Cesta (2004), an equally appropriate title, and a panel discussion with Michal Bregant and Carmen Gray, led by Peter Hames.

Film director Věra Chytilová. Photo: Czech Centre in WarsawChytilová did not go into film right away, and considered first architecture, photography, acting. When she decided, and applied to the Film Academy (FAMU), at the age of 28, she told the tutors she found their films boring and predictable. She got in nevertheless, and her student films already brought her to international attention. Ceiling/Strop (1961) – exposing the inner life of a fashion model (Chytilová herself worked as one) in a style mixing formalism and neo-realism – and A Bag of Fleas/Pytel blech (1962), which used non-actors in a ‘fictionalised documentary’ about women workers in cotton mills. Something Different/O nĕčem jiném (1963, 82mins) was Chytilová’s first feature and cuts two stories in parallel – the documentary story of a woman gymnast and the fictional story of a housewife – while never connecting them together. She was clearly looking for the cinematic means to get across a ‘truth’ about the situation of women and its social context that the given aesthetic could/would not deliver, and only in later films focused more directly on male characters.

As one of the Czech New Wave generation, which employed a co-operative work ethic and, according to Bregant, “worked without creative jealousy”, she already had considerable experience, having been a continuity ‘girl’ at the Barrandov studios and studied art history. She brought theory into her practice and talked about the ‘semantic gesture’ in the creation of meaning behind a film. Being older than the others and so openly defiant, she was very much looked up to and seen as a mentor by them.

Scene from The Fruit of Paradise (1969, dir. Věra Chytilová)Her first colour film was Daisies. Curator Renata Clark describes it as “a neo-Dadaist farce full of extravagant visual effects, sensuous decor and fascinating experiments with colour”. The two young women protagonists, “stumble through a series of happenings”, in or out of their control, making fun of outmoded or repressive social behaviour with, as Carmen Gray put it, absolutely “no decorum”, in a film that’s brimming with “joie de vivre” (Clark). For Gray, “freedom is inscribed in the film’s form.” Its release was delayed for a year (in fact, Bregant reported, “all her films” were). The Fruit of Paradise/Ovoce stormů rajských jíme followed in 1969: based on a murder, with Adam, Eve, the Devil and the Garden of Eden and “her most experimental work” (Clark). Both films were shot by Chytilová’s then husband, cinematographer Jaroslav Kučera. The release of both films was delayed, and after Fruit (i.e., post-1968), she was denied the right to make her films for six years, during which she became “depressed” and even “threatened suicide”. New York Film Festival programmers learnt about her situation in 1976 while searching a print of Daisies, and mounted pressure in her support. She was not allowed out to attend the event. The support prompted her to write to the President Husák, the Cultural Cttee and others. (Later Scene from The Jester and the Queen (1987, dir. Věra Chytilová)she would not be afraid to make a scene in order to make films as she intended, and was equally ungiving towards her audience: “I don’t give a damn; you don’t achieve anything without risking loss”. “The audience didn’t like The Fruit of Paradise”, for example, but, for Chytilová, critical reflection was everything). Finally, she was allowed to make The Apple Game/Hra o jablko (1976), released in Czechoslovakia 1978 – a nurse pursued by a philandering doctor (Menzel). It won the Silver Hugo at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival and was shown at the Chicago Festival. There were two films in the 1980s, one in 1998 (Traps), ‘a feminist black comedy’. The latest film in the programme, is Flights and Falls/Vzlety a pády (2000), a documentary about three Czech photographers. Three more followed, the last in 2006.

Film director Vĕra ChytilováAfter 1990 (when free elections were established) she was “given no awards”, but was eventually acknowledged as the ‘First Lady of Czech cinema’ and given a life-achievement award. “Is this for all my films?” she asked. “It’s for your contribution to cinema.”, they said, dodging the question aimed at their censorious treatment of her work, all of it socially critical, colourful, experimental – and joyful.

A UK tour of some of the films will run from 22 March. 

DVDs from the BFI: Daisies is available now, currently at £9.99; Traps will be available from 23 March; The Fruit of Paradise from 13 April.

Angela Martin is one of the WFTHN co-ordinators and currently its blog editor, and author of ‘Refocusing Authorship in Women’s Filmmaking’ in Women Filmmakers: Refocusing (eds) Jacqueline Levitin, Judith Pleases and Valerie Raoul (UBC Press: Vancouver and Toronto, 2003).

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