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Feminine Abjection: Daisies (1966)

By Emily Barnes

Věra Chytilová’s Daisies is an experimental and philosophical feminist film, employing absurdism to explore the truths of reality. The film follows two young women, Marie and Marie, in Stalinist Czechoslovakia during the Prague Spring. The Maries insist that the world is spoiled, a fact that they feel excuses their bad behavior as they become increasingly apathetic and detached from what would be considered socially or morally appropriate. Their rebellion descends into surreal madness, and the film concludes with devastating and self-inflicted consequence. While Daisies can and has been interpreted in a myriad of ways at the hands of its striking and disruptive symbolism, it is also crucial to analyze the feeling of the film. The film elicits a a feeling that is at once particular and difficult to place. The closest I get to naming this sensation is through Julia Kristeva’s theory of abjection.

Kristeva’s Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection defines abjection first vaguely, as a disruption to the binary understanding of self and other. The abject lies in the liminal in-between, eliciting often a sense of discomfort and occasionally a sense of utter horror. Kristeva’s examples range from recognizable to downright Freudian, from the kind of disgust that seeing one’s own vomit might evoke, to childbirth, the act of initial separation from the womb. It could be easy to write off the theory of the abject when bodily fluids are objectively gross, but abjection refers instead to the feeling of dread that seeing something gravely out of place produces— stomach bile should remain in the stomach, and therefore seeing it on the floor or in a toilet bowl is fundamentally wrong. While this example of human vomit feels innate in some way, other senses of misplacement are often socially constructed. The construction of female gender roles provides space for abjection in several forms, namely the subversion of the expectations of girlhood and femininity at large.

There is another theory that works in parallel with the feminine abject: the feminine grotesque. The etymology of the word “grotesque” is the foundation for the theory of the feminine grotesque; the earliest forms of the english grotesque come from the Italian grottesca, ‘resembling a grotto’. A cavernous space, arcane and illusive, both repugnant and desired— a word that, at the time, was used to describe vaginal anatomy. And thus, our modern grotesque. Even worse yet, as a grotto is a space that can be explored and conquered, so is a women’s body, though both of these acts must be exclusive to men. Therein lay mechanisms for subversion, critical to understanding the Maries in Daisies.

The feminism of Daisies relies on its leads being overtly abject women. The Maries date with the sole intention of overindulging on food bought for them by men, telephone these same men with no intention of giving them what they are undoubtedly expecting, live in disarray, cram their mouths with food not meant for them— doing so with dainty fingers in fashionable dresses and styled hair, with practiced seduction and performed naïveté.

The note on food is particularly revealing of the abject. Although the film is heavily underscored by the political unrest of the 1960’s in Czechoslovakia, and the eating of food in excess also points to a disregard for the food shortages and rationing of the time, I believe that we as viewers would not derive such discomfort were we watching men engage in the same rebellious behaviors. Instead this overindulgence works in parallel with the Maries’ generally incendiary behavior, and the feminine abject takes hold; these girls ought to be more lady-like, ought to treat these men better. Allusions to the Garden of Eden are also frequent, depicting the girls prancing around an apple tree early on in the film, later subverting expectations of girlish innocence as the Maries eat the apples and other fruits, never actually finishing but instead tossing scraps aside to rot. We understand the girls to be cunning and knowledgeable almost immediately, even in the absence of an explicit 'snake'. The presence of the feminine grotesque is sustained by the fact that the food is often presented as a phallic symbol, reminding us that these girls also ought to ‘fill’ themselves in other ways, most notably the point at which bananas, pickles, and sausages are mutilated by the Maries with scissors.

It is not only food that is mutilated by the Maries; Chytilová’s surrealism arrives at a point of chaos by the midpoint of the film, apparently granting them with immortality as they essentially deconstruct themselves with the same scissors. Moments later they are pieced back together, leaving viewers to question their reality to the point of questioning their existence. The Maries have otherworldly agency in the film, situating Chytilová’s work as not only feminist but abject in the way she proves their power.

Daisies was briefly banned in Czechoslovakia in 1966 after its release due to the flippant disregard for rations, an ironic response to the film’s last shot stating “This film is dedicated to all those whose sole source of indignation is a trampled-on trifle”. Chytilová is a master in evoking discomfort in viewers that demands a personal reconciliation, a signifier of great art through film.

Daisies is currently available to stream on HBO Max and Criterion Collection.

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