WE ALL LIKE TO EAT CAKE: ‘DAISIES’ AT THE ROXIE

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Last night I tried to beat the rainstorm to the Roxie, San Francisco’s oldest running movie theater. The Castro may be our city’s opulent movie palace, but the Roxie is our musty shoebox, a treasure chest of mysterious breeding. It’s a bit like time travel, and last night the screen was prepped for that cheerfully boxy frame: 1:33.

Too often this film gets called mischievous: Daisies has real teeth. Looking at it now, the 1966 film looks communist-friendly, but was banned on release in communist Czechoslovakia. It was also a state sponsored film: such is history.

What complicates the film is the interplay between surrealism and satire. While the film formally slashes and burns its way through un(classically) motivated montage, absurd dialogue, optical tricks, and what can only be described as the most irresponsible use of color-tinting in cinema history, its heroines are also essentially parodies. Not caricatures: parodies.

I have no beef with feminism, but I don’t know where that label is coming from. Daisies has been pitched to me over and over as a feminist film, and the label persists in this poster (foregrounded on the film’s IMDB page):

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Whether you find the image nauseating or ironically sublime, you can see the words “madcap feminist farce” printed in clear, modestly goofy font for all the world to see. Construing the film as feminist kind of upsets me, because the films heroines… well, they don’t behave well. Calling them heroines is sort of a joke. Their acting out seems to be less about upsetting established patriarchal order (although that may be in there somewhere) and more about exploiting that order for their own unending (and unsatisfying) gain. They’re not women– they’re cheery idiots, merry fools, dress-up dolls. 

Of course you get some juicy anarchist sentiment to chew on: the destruction of wealthy order. (The girls can be found cheating elderly men out of huge amounts of expensive food, and, most famously, trashing an extravagant banquet.) Although I question whether there isn’t a distinction to be drawn between anarchic destruction of, and fetishistic worship of. The worship of a product could result in its consumption, and the girls love to destroy by means of consumption. 

But there’s judgement coming. The film’s end finds the girls being forced to clean up their mess. Indeed, they beg for a second chance after their destructive impulses land them karmically (instantly and absurdly) in a large body of water. They look ready to drown, and beg an unseen force to spare them.

They’re then warped back to the seen of their crime, tasked with cleaning up their mess: and they can’t. Not only are their hearts not in it (they titter and whisper and fuss while trying to piece together hopelessly shattered dishes) but all their tasks are impossible. Nothing can repair the damage they have done. They cannot rebuild the plates, and they cannot reproduce the amazing food that took them only one scene to grind under their heels.

Maybe the film would play well next to the somewhat more ascetic The Comedy (Rick Alverson.) While that film looks on its central character with somewhat less relish, its similarly critical.

We’re meant to enjoy the antics of the girls in Daisies, maybe in a visceral, amoral way, but the logical thread of the movie is a damning comment on their behavior. Far from real “rebels” the girls are the ultimate consumers. They’re constantly pigging out on all manner of food, frequently very rich food, frequently cake, and their glee seems to partially stem from their not having to pay for any of it. What a value! The constant consumption looks to be a metaphor for the capitalist middle class that, frankly, the French New Wavers weren’t so crazy about either: it’s that petty bourgeoise thing again.

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That they’re women: well, their names are Mary I and Mary II. Maybe the feminist tone that people are wringing out of the movie does recognize the women as acidic satires, stingingly evoking what women aren’t: interchangeable dolls running around eating and tittering and lighting things on fire.

Like The Comedy, Daisies evokes a special strand of superficiality that seems at once horrifically extreme and banal (we all like to eat cake, don’t we?) But here it’s based less on ironic malaise and more on endless consumption and play. Destruction is purportedly a creative act (maybe by omission) but in Daisies the anarchy is passed into the hands of the mindless, the self-obsessed, the greedy, the hedonistic: and they’re women. So we should be more careful calling this an empowering, feminist romp.

Just what kind of a farce this is, only Vera Chytilova knows. Now:

If I can go on for a moment, from reading to experience: the film is breathtaking (is the phrase “gleefully anarchic?”) and truly, nothing is sacred. Janus Films and the Roxie have also conspired to present this Czech New Wave masterwork/symphonic riff on a new 35mm print which, I can attest, is gorgeous. Daisies is also available to stream through Hulu, but seeing the celluloid really draws some of the more- ahem– colorful passages, giving them enough weight to sufficiently convince you you have left your body. You will lean forward, but see only butterflies.

A night at the Roxie also puts you in position for Taqueria Los Coyotes, where the carne asada fries come recommended. Hopefully the rain keeps up, as it somehow makes the tacos taste even better, and the Roxie even more magical.

-Max Berwald

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