If the entire world is bad, why shouldn’t we be? Adopting this insolent attitude as their guiding philosophy, a pair of hedonistic young women (Ivana Karbanová and Jitka Cerhová), both named Marie, embark on a gleefully debauched odyssey of gluttony, giddy destruction, and antipatriarchal resistance, in which nothing is safe from their nihilistic pursuit of pleasure. But what happens when the fun is over? Matching her anarchic message with an equally radical aesthetic, director Věra Chytilová, with the close collaboration of cinematographer Jaroslav Kučera, unleashes an optical storm of fluctuating film stocks, kaleidoscopic montages, cartoonish stop-motion cutouts, and surreal costumes designed by Ester Krumbachová, who also cowrote the script. The result is Daisies, the most defiant provocation of the Czechoslovak New Wave, an exuberant call to rebellion aimed squarely at those who uphold authoritarian oppression in any form.
The Criterion Collection presents Vera Chytilová’s Daises on Blu-ray, delivering the film on a dual-layer disc in its original aspect ratio of 1.37:1. The new 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation is sourced from a new 4K restoration taken from a scan of the 35mm original camera negative.
Criterion previously released the film on DVD through their Eclipse line (it can be found in the 32nd set, Pearls of the Czech New Wave) and limitations of the format aside I still think it looks pretty good upscaled. The Blu-ray is of course going to look better (unless someone really messes up), a newer restoration clearly also being a boon, but I still thought I had an idea as to how this was going to look based on the DVD and I have to say I was way off. This new presentation just completely exceeded my expectations by a ridiculous margin. Simply put, it looks marvelous.
The level of detail picked up in the new scan is extraordinary and the picture is so much sharper and clearer thanks to it. Even the archival/b-roll footage that gets inserted into the film looks remarkable and freeze framing during the trippy sequences where various filters or multiple exposures have been applied shows a surprising amount of clarity, all with a superb film texture. This last aspect is also aided by the presentation of the film’s incredibly fine grain structure that has been rendered splendidly through Criterion’s encode, with only a handful darker areas looking a tad off.
The colours lean warmer though I can’t say it’s a cause for concern: whites still look white, if leaning more of a "cream," and it’s not too far removed from how the colours look through the older presentation. They look about right, and blues still come out looking great. The film also features a number of coloured filters and various effects laid over the image and they all have a fantastic pop and vibrancy to them. Black levels are rich and deep as well, and shadows show excellent delineation, details never appearing to get crushed out. Damage is also not a concern with the restoration having cleaned up just about everyting, outside of that archival/b-roll footage mentioned previously, which still feature marks and dirt (all clearly by design). All in, it’s a terrific and stunning looking presentation (one that would have also benefitted from a full 4K presentation).
The film’s monaural soundtrack, presented here in lossless single-channel PCM, also receives a nice boost over Criterion’s old Eclipse DVD. The track is cleaner, free of noise and distortion, and even shows some notable range. Some sound effects still sound a bit flat and monotone, but voices show surprising fidelity a lot of the time.
Criterion has put together a decent little special edition for the film, first porting over an audio commentary featuring film scholars Daniel Bird and Peter Hames, which I believe was recorded for a German Blu-ray edition in 2012 (it also appears on Second Run’s 2018 Blu-ray edition released in the UK). Hames has written extensively about the film and Czechoslovakian cinema (the New Wave in particular) so I was expecting a lot out of the track only to be mildly disappointed. To be fair Hames really does dig into the film and its impact, which leads to discussion around the social and political climate of the time (offering some context to those that may be bewildered by the film) and further discussion around the Czech New Wave. Chytilová’s background and career get covered, as do the background of the film’s performers (the two leads were not professional actors), and Hames does bring up the critical reactions to the film. He even has a bit of fun when it comes to the film’s “message,” and covers issues it ran into with the Communist government of the time.
The track is technically all well and good, and I did learn quite a bit from it since Hames is a very clear authority, but its presentation can feel a bit stifling. It’s setup more in a “question and answer” format, Hames answering questions asked by Bird, and it doesn’t have a natural flow with the feeling as if Bird may be fighting to keep Hames engaged and the track going. This format has its advantages since it forces coverage of topics that otherwise wouldn’t have come up organically, like when Hames talks about how the film has held up through the years, but it ends up being painstakingly dry a lot of the time because there’s little-to-no chemistry to be found. I see that Kat Ellinger and Samm Deighan recorded a track for that 2018 Second Run edition, and I was incredibly disappointed to see Criterion didn’t port it over to here. I haven’t listened to it so I guess it could be a poor track but based on other tracks featuring the two (Images, Morocco and even Switchblade Sisters) I highly doubt that and feel their energy—along with the possibility of the two bringing a more personal perspective—would have made for a more engaging discussion. I will have to assume that Criterion couldn’t license it, or the costs were prohibitive (Second Run lists it as “exclusive” so they could be holding tightly on to it), but it’s still a little disheartening, nonetheless (though it may push me to finally pick up the Second Run disc).
Criterion does include one new feature, an interview with film programmer Irena Kovarova, who speaks here for 9-minutes. Discussing Chytilová’s film and career she rather impressively manages to (mostly) avoid repeating topics covered in the commentary and other archival features on the disc. Like Hames she discusses what the possible “meaning” of the film is but she also talks about the double-meanings of some the Czech dialogue within the film (lost in the English translation) and even gets a bit more into how the film rubbed the Communist party in the wrong way but still managing to find its way to the west despite that. Her contribution ultimately isn’t a huge addition, but it provides a decent addendum to the commentary track.
Another feature from the archives is the 55-minute documentary Journey: A Portrait of Vera Chytilová, created in 2004 by Jasmina Blazevic. Through archival material and newly filmed interviews with the director Blazevic offers up what ends up being a bit of melancholic (maybe even angry) reflection of Chytilová’s life, with the last portion of the documentary leaning that way especially. It’s during this last little bit where she reflects on regrets, whether it be her lack of success since 1990, the year she received what appears to have been her last award (and she’s sure they didn’t really want to give it to her), or how people have exited her life, the director stating how she constantly reflects on “whom all I have loved” in the past tense, and there is a genuine sense of sadness and disappointment there. The short film covers the topics you would expect, like what pushed her to being a filmmaker, and it even has an interesting portion where she tours her home and recalls scenes that she filmed there, but it’s very unconventional and not at all what I expected, with it feeling in the end as though the director is openly questioning if there was a point to anything she has accomplished.
It can all feel a bit crushing in the end so that probably led me to being a bit more open to the upbeat 2012 video put together by Daniel Bird, entitled Naughty Young People: Chytilova, Kucera, Krumbachova,. Running 27-minutes it explores the working relationships between Chytilová, cinematographer Jaroslav Kucera (her husband for many years before they separated in 1991) and writer Ester Krumbachová, and is comprised of archival footage (including footage featuring Chytilová) and interviews with musician Andy Votel, composer Jan Klusak (who appears in Daisies), cinematographer Jaromir Sofr, and costume designer Sarka Hejnova. The four offer their thoughts on the work of the three artists and go over their individual work and collaborations leading up to Daisies. There’s even a nice focus on the film’s visuals and Kucera’s experimentation, and a funny story around an attempt to get Daisies banned that spectacularly backfired.
It’s a great little program that further aids in contextualizing the film to the period, becoming one of the release’s stronger additions, but the best ones would have to be two early short films by Chytilová: the 45-minute A Bagful of Fleas and the 42-minute Ceiling, both made in 1962. Ceiling focuses on a former medical student pursuing a career as a model and maneuvering through that world with little to no control over her own choices thanks to the men around her. To these people she’s pretty much a piece of meat. I assume it’s based on Chytilová’s own experience as a model early in her life (covered in the commentary and documentary), and it all seems rather straightforward at first but goes an interesting path during the last act.
I guess the seeds of Daisies can be found in the film, at least in its tackling of the expectations of women and their perceived roles in society (especially a very controlling one), and this all gets explored further in A Bagful of Fleas, though, for me, in a more interesting manner. Its story takes place in an all-girl dormitory at a textile factory, and at first it appears to be exploring the day-to-day of the setting in an almost documentary-like manner until a character named Jana gets in trouble and faces a tribunal that will decide whether she will be able to stay or not. This film is interestingly told from the first-person perspective of a new girl named Eva (we are literally seeing everything through her eyes), throwing us into the center of the story. Incredibly that narrative device works and that anarchic spark against the system that is on full display in Daisies does also show up here, though through a far more linear story with a not-at-all-subtle nod thrown towards the Communist government through the depiction of the authoritarian-like system of the dormitory. If one hasn’t seen Daisies yet I’d recommend maybe watching these two films first (in either order) before going to that film. Daiseis is still very different stylistically from these two, but they really do set up what’s to come.
Excellent inclusions on Criterion’s part and I’m very happy they were able to license them for this release. They are also using a new 2K restoration for A Bagful of Fleas and it looks really good; it’s even encoded well. Ceiling is sourced from an older master and may actually be a standard-definition upscale, albeit a decent looking one.
The disc finally closes with a new trailer advertising the new restoration, while the included insert features a new essay by critic Carmen Gray, writing about the film’s significance and its being “countercultural art thumbing its nose at the ideas of progress propagated by the Communist regime.”
I’m still a little disappointed Criterion didn’t produce more new material or license the Deighan/Ellinger commentary, but the supplements they do include perform a wonderful deep dive into the film and its impact, with the shorts showing the lead-up to the film. It's still a well rounded edition.
With a sharp looking new high-def presentation and a solid set of features this release for Vera Chytilová’s groundbreaking film comes with a very high recommendation.