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No Ruins in the Waste Land: Construction and Destruction of the Classical Nymph in Sedmikrásky

Vera Chytilova’s Daisies/Sedmikrasky (1966) surreally depicts the efforts of two women to embrace being “spoiled” when faced with a world that is likewise corrupted. In their application of this philosophy, the two women (both credited as “Marie”) display the traits of a classical nature deity, or nymph, from Greek and Roman mythology. Both the actions of the characters and the visual stylings of the film itself serve to assert this image, and the closing downfall the Maries' experience suggests an irreconcilable conflict between their nymph lifestyle and the authoritarian threat of society. This conflict also reveals Daisies’s commentary of the female struggle through male oppression and the human struggle through the gravity of nuclear warfare, and indicates that both result in the rejection and destruction of the classical form adopted by the protagonists.

The carefree, natural-impulse-driven antics and attitudes of the two Maries in Daisies mirror the characteristics of nymphs from classical mythology. In Greco-Roman myth, nymphs exist outside of civilization and society. The girls respond to the “spoiled” world they perceive with their decision to be “spoiled” too, removing them, like the nymph, from a sphere that prioritizes structure and rules of conduct. Daisies directly emphasizes an externality from modern civilization as Brunette Marie remarks to Blonde Marie, “You’re not registered here [at the apartment]. You don’t work. There’s no proof you exist.” The Maries’ lack of bureaucratic anchors to society allows them to drift mythically through a world they do not belong to. Voluntarily abandoning allegiance to social conduct, their interactions with the world result in disruption and destruction as they pursue their desires with childlike abandon. The Maries' espouse the archetypal nymph’s mischievous tendencies throughout the film as they disrupt a dinner show, impulsively steal from a woman in the bathroom, and consume and destroy wantonly in the climactic banquet scene. They allow themselves to drift on a current of natural whims, climbing without hesitation into a dumbwaiter, hoping it will take them to food.

Additionally, they approach sexuality as an entertaining way to tempt but always ultimately deny their male pursuers, revealing another parallel to the classical template. The nymph’s beauty consistently attracts and entraps men in Greek and Roman mythology, repeated in Daisies by the clueless men who hope to essentially bribe their way into sex. The Maries socially weaponize their sexuality to great success, repeatedly manipulating their male playthings into showering them with attention and gifts, using the dangling carrot of misleading flirtations. This continuous temptation and denial accurately mirrors the way Greco-Roman nymphs toy with men from between the trees or just beneath the surfaces of water. The impulsive instinct of the women’s actions and the illogical lack of consequences they face (until the film’s conclusion) lends a mythological, effortless quality to their ability to skirt the edges of modern civilization. None of the abandoned men return to cause conflict, and no system of authority emerges to punish the girls’ flagrant rule-breaking. The girls float around the edges of society and its rules, retreating, as nymphs, back into scenes of nature, whether literally or in the figurative “jungle” of their vibrant and chaotic apartment.

Chytilova’s use of image in Daisies illustrates a visual agreement with the classical personas inferred by the actions and mindsets of the film’s two main characters. The Maries frolic in nature throughout multiple scenes, further strengthening their alignment with nymphs as minor nature deities. The Blonde Marie dons a floral wreath for the entire film, offering a persistent symbol of the girls’ connection to nature even as they foray into civilization. Their apartment likewise persists in its natural imagery, despite being a structured piece of society. The girls decorate it with rich green palm fronds, hang streamers from the ceiling like vines, and paper the walls with jumbled collages of scribbled drawings. Daisies switches between color, black and white, and monotone tints throughout the film, but Chytilova consistently displays the scenes of nature (including the apartment) in color. This consistency equates nature with a vibrancy, and creates the sense that the girls belong in nature and are closer to their true selves within it.

The use of color indicates Chytilova’s focus on utilizing visual structure to express meaning. Jonathan Owen’s statement that Chytilova displays a “directorial complicity in the girls’ excesses, as evidenced in the film’s effusive, chaotic, and itself profligate visual style,” aligns Chytilova’s struggle against traditional film structure with the girls’ rebellious actions, and therefore their adoption of the nymph persona (196). However, the girls’ ultimate doom marks their representation of that classical model not as a celebration, but a lamentation. The lamentation only shows itself at the end of the film, as the women beg from the water (a common home of the nymph) to be let back into society, shouting that they “don’t want to be spoiled anymore.” Helplessly drowning in their own classical existence, their only salvation is the extended oars, implements of the structure and society they spurned. Their destruction indicates an impossibility of the existence of classical structures in modern society. The Maries’ inability to put the material structures of society back together and their horribly confused clothing of assorted newspaper seen in their opportunity of “redemption” reflects their inability to understand the modern world and assimilate their nymph selves into it.

Daisies uses this establishment of mythological parallels to propose that male-dominated society rejects and destroys the authentic femininity characterized by the classical nymph. Nymphs embody extremely strong symbols of femininity in mythology, and the recurring reinforcement of the Maries as nymphs through action and visual structure therefore establishes the women themselves as representatives of the female existence. In a society where men control and oppress women, true female expressions and actions can only exist outside of society. The equivalency between the nymph image and overall femininity informs Chytilova’s portrayal of the female struggle and implies a metaphorical need to break down all elements of society to be truly feminine. For example, the stylized, non-traditional dialogue of the Maries rejects typical lingual structures. Petra Hanakova writes that language in Daisies is “stripped of its power, coherence, and ‘reason,’ [and] it can no longer be used to define women’s traditional position in society” (Hanakova). This abandonment of traditional forms resonates with the socially external personas of the Greco-Roman nymph.

The reason the girls ultimately fail lies in their inability to completely remove themselves from society (i.e. male domination) as the mythical nymphs can. The Maries attempt to live outside of society by rejecting its rules and structures, but must still move through and interact with it. In contrast, the nymphs of Greco-Roman myth lived with Artemis (the Roman Diana) in a community of women which men were forbidden to enter. The story of one nymph, Callisto, expresses the inherent destabilization male violence represents to feminine society. Zeus takes the form of Artemis in order to deceive and rape Callisto. She becomes pregnant, and Artemis banishes her from the female community when she discovers this. For the nymphs, the intrusion of male power, especially via forced sexuality, destroys their feminine society in its attempt to yoke it to male desire.

The nymphs of Daisies exert sexual control over a few individuals, yet still face a similar destruction, implying that the universal weight of male society overpowers their attempts to assert their womanhood. At one point in the film, the girls wander into the countryside. The countryside, being nature, should be a sanctuary for the feminine nymph, but even this has been invaded by the male construct of farming. A short montage of locked doors bookends their adventure, visually indicating the Maries’ isolation from society as well as the sense that these women do not belong here (in their defiant state, at least). Owen writes that the montage “suggest[s] that they are denied access to, or acceptance by, the masculine world of manual work,” which ironically points out that men boldly deny female participation without subjugation even as they invade the supposed female space of nature (196). The eventual downfall of the Maries indicates a saddened futility in the struggle of the female against the mountain of male oppression, creating a mirror of gender issues in the atomic dread that gripped the world at the time of Daisies release.

Coming out in Czechoslovakia in 1966, Daisies of course struggles both with the artistic and humanitarian hopelessness in the face of nuclear warfare. The film opens with numerous shots of nuclear tests, and the girls’ subsequent argument that the world is “spoiled” represents the futility they experience in valuing anything when the world may turn to dust at any moment. The girls appear at first to contrast this fear with their cavalier attitude towards violence as they playfully attack each other with scissors. However, this form of destruction is completely and purposefully antithetical to the complete devastation of atomic apocalypse. The fight with the scissors symbolizes the classical violence of battle by blade, again situating the Maries in antiquity. Additionally, their ability to lose arms and even survive decapitation with a smile illustrates a romanticized and divine immortality characteristic of mythical Greek figures. It’s a violence completely dwarfed by the totality of nuclear Armageddon, which skips past the segmentations and overall survivability of classical blade violence into the complete disintegration of all life.

‘Funeral Music,’ from the end of Wagner’s Twilight of the Gods, plays during the final banquet scene, indicating, as Jason Merrill argues, that “Chytilova intended [Daisies] to have apocalyptic overtones, as echoed by Hames, who says that ‘the girls’ attitudes are linked to the world of political destruction, the falling of the chandelier...to a nuclear explosion’” (106). These assertions further support the mirroring of the girls’ failed struggle to assert a feminine life in male society with their failure to experience a carefree life of childlike innocence in a nuclear society. Structures of classical antiquity rely on the assumption that immortality can exist, and that civilization has a quality of eternity, both into the past and the future. But the destructive potential of the nuclear bomb obliterates these assumptions. The bomb is post-innocence in its existence. It is post-religion and post-war and post-meaning in its cold equality of death. It is post-eternity (and therefore post-antiquity) in its threat of the complete erasure of not just present civilization, but even of past civilization, of history itself. As classical structures themselves, the Maries cannot hope to stand against the existential weight of the world’s nuclear shadow.

Vera Chytilova’s Daisies establishes the two main characters as playful, impulse-driven representations of nymphs from classical mythology. The Maries abandon society and attempt to live outside of it, visually supported in this by Chytilova’s use of visual meaning. The inevitable ruin the “nymphs” face in the end connotes some sort of incompatibility between their attempted lifestyle and the world at large. This incompatibility exists as two sides of a coin, one side the attempt to reveal and act upon true womanhood in a patriarchal world, and the other the attempt to live at all in face of the atomic bomb. Daisies seems to embrace futility on both fronts, but in the dedication, passion, and drive to create the film in the first place, Chytilova does offer some hope, leaving room for progress and compromise in the surreal space between the oppressive wishes of men and nuclear warheads and the extreme, a-societal retreat into myth by the two nymphs.

 

Works Cited

Chytilova, Vera, director. Sedmikrásky. 1966.

Hanakova, Petra. “Voices from Another World: Feminine Space and Masculine Intrusion in

Sedmikrásky and Vrazda Ing. Certa.” East European Cinemas.

Merrill, Jason. 'Gender and Apocalypse in Eastern European Cinema.' The Liverpool

Companion to World Science Fiction Film, ed. Sonja Fritzsche (2014; pubd online Jan. 2015). Liverpool Scholarship Online.

Owen, Jonathan. “‘Heroes of the Working Class’? Work in Czechoslovak Films of the New-Wave and Postcommunist Years.” Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media, vol. 53, no. 1, 2012, pp. 190–206. JSTOR, JSTOR.

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