Perhaps more than any other film of the Czechoslovak New Wave, Vera Chytilová’s anarchic Daisies has transcended its origins and become an arthouse darling. The Criterion Collection hails it as “one of the great works of feminist cinema” and it is only one of two Czech movies to make the exalted Sight and Sound Top 250, the other being Marketa Lazarova. Over 50 years later, it still attracts attention from modern film buffs thanks to its absurd humour, zeitgeisty vibe and abundance of sixties style.
Chytilová made many other films, including the popular comedy The Inheritance or Fuckoffguysgoodday, but Daisies remains her most famous work. Sometimes when a director is so closely associated with one film it is fun to look back at their earlier catalogue to see how their style developed. With this in mind, I thought I’d check out her second short feature, A Bagful of Fleas.
Shot in feathery soft black and white by Jaromír Šofr, the film is set in a hostel for young female workers at a nearby textile factory. They squabble, gossip, lounge around reading magazines and chewing gum, and flirt with guys in the neighbourhood from their dorm window. They are a raucous, argumentative bunch, and life is fairly regimented for them. Each morning they are woken at the crack of dawn by their supervisor playing loud marching music and are only allowed to leave the premises with written permission. This leads to tension within the group – one girl is a good singer and receives special treatment, much to the irritation of the others.
We meet the group from the POV of Eva Galova, a newcomer at the textile factory, and hear her thoughts as she observes her new roommates in their downtime activities. At first, they are a little mean and she seems sad that the others don’t exactly welcome her. Soon enough, she finds her place among the group and becomes friends with Jana, a skinny, volatile rebel who is always in trouble with her comrades and supervisors.
Jana emerges as the story’s dominant character and we watch her antics through Eva’s eyes, who responds to her new friend’s rebelliousness without ever getting herself into too much trouble. To her credit, Jana teaches Eva how to use the machines in the textile factory before running off and leaving her to it. Jana’s small acts of anarchy increase the tensions in the group, like stealing another girl’s food parcel and smoking in the dorm. Eventually, her unruly behaviour leads to a showdown with the people in charge. In Jana’s personality, we can identify the seeds of the freewheeling Marie I and Marie II in Daisies.
Another filmmaker might have chosen to look at the lives of these women with a straightforward documentary. Instead, the first-person perspective has the unusual effect of making the documentary speak directly to us, breaking the fourth wall and drawing the viewer into the room with the characters. It never feels like a gimmick, putting us in among the group of girls as they shout, laugh, argue and play pranks on one another.
Despite this bold choice, it is still only a taster of the radical experiments with filmmaking that Chytilová would later achieve in Daisies. As far as social realism goes, A Bagful of Fleas has the breezier tone of female-led British kitchen-sink dramas like A Taste of Honey and Poor Cow. The performances are natural with no actorly polish – the girls are raw and realistic and don’t play to the camera, while the improvised dialogue carries the natural rhythm of group conversation. Indeed, it is remarkable that a group of non-actors are so relaxed and unguarded in such close proximity to the camera.
Chytilová also demonstrates a mature sense of balance. While the work and lodgings may be uninspiring for a group of young women, the people running the place aren’t entirely unsympathetic. The film is a snapshot of a dead-end life under a patronising system, yet the girls’ supervisors genuinely care for the wellbeing of their young charges. In the case of Jana, you have to wonder what kind of life she would lead without the structure of the factory and the discipline of its overseers.
A Bagful of Fleas shows a remarkably assured filmmaking talent at the very beginning of her career, with the spiky playfulness that became a hallmark of her most famous feature. It also showcases the early work of cinematographer Jaromír Šofr, who would make many celebrated films with the likes of Jiří Menzel, Jaromil Jireš and Otakar Vávra. It is a well-spent 45 minutes for anyone interested in seeing more of Chytilová’s films and earlier, lesser-known works of the New Wave directors.