Věra Chytilová's Last Laugh

Tracing the consistency of the pioneering female filmmaker's output and its distinct periods.
Boris Nelepo

Věra Chytilová shooting Time Is Relentless

In Something Different (1963), housewife Vera has had it with her emotionally unavailable husband, exhausting chores, and child-rearing, so she starts an affair. A broken woman, she bursts into sporadic fits of giggling, scaring both men in her life. Prefiguring to some extent Alain Tanner's La salamandre, this laughter lifts the veil over the heroine's existential crisis, one so reluctant to be put into words and yet occasionally susceptible to movie images. Over the almost 50-year span of her career, we've heard Věra Chytilová's laugh so many times that it deserves to be catalogued. Daisies (1966) gave the censors plenty of reasons to ban it, but the derisive cackling of two girls at war with common sense would've sufficed. You can hear the sound as early as her student film Caterwauling (1960), made at the Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague (FAMU). There, the filmmaker does voice work for a cat observing her owners' shady and fussy dealings. As she concludes her story with an outburst of infectious guffaws, the feline narrator proves to have a lot in common with the protagonist of Chytilová's farewell Pleasant Moments (2006)—psychoanalyst Hana, a spectator, not unlike us, of a series of everyday tragedies, each one seemingly insignificant but constitutive, at times, of the human essence itself. In the last shot of Chytilová's last feature, we watch the heroine's face in close-up until her chortles turn into a crying jag.

Why dwell on laughter? I think most of Věra Chytilová's body of work can be categorized as moral farces. Any further attempts to generalize are hindered by the ambivalence of her oeuvre, so slippery and resistant to ready-made definitions, as well as by her stylistic transformations' direct dependence on socio-political change, first in Czechoslovakia, then in the Czech Republic. Born in Ostrava in 1929 into the family of a railroad-cafe manager, she would later revisit trains and cafes. Chytilová had studied architecture, dipped her toes in modeling, worked as an assistant director at the Barrandov film studio, and even married a famous photographer Karel Ludwig before she finally enrolled at FAMU in 1957. Applying for Otakar Vávra's workshop, she pled complete dissatisfaction with the state of contemporary cinema; and in fact, her year's alumni would revolutionize its landscape altogether, bringing forth the Czech New Wave (Chytilová's debut feature Something Different ranked among the forebears). The Pearls of the Deep (1965) anthology film, based on Bogumil Hrabal's short stories, became the movement's unofficial manifesto as well as Chytilová's class reunion with Jaromil Jires, Jirí Menzel, Jan Němec, and Evald Schorm. This flurry of unprecedented activity included the first steps of Jan Němec, Ivan Passer, Miloš Forman, Juraj Herz, and Štefan Uher, each of whom merits a lengthy discussion rather than a mention in passing.

In 1968, First Secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, Alexander Dubček, set in motion a reform process aimed at "socialism with a human face." This brief period of liberalization, which went down in history as the Prague Spring, coincided with the New Wave's apex, yet all of it came to an abrupt halt when Soviet tanks invaded Czechoslovakia and the country entered what is now known as "normalization." With her avant-garde Daisies (1966) and Fruit of Paradise (1969), Chytilová quickly became a thorn in the party officials' side and was subsequently banished from her profession. And yet, just like Želimir Žilnik whose complete retrospective was hosted by Doclisboa two years ago, she refused to leave the country. Her perseverance did help her elbow her way back in, but she had to forsake her signature surrealism becoming instead an unrivaled chronicler of Czechoslovakian life. It was easy for Godard to cast aspersions on Chytilová in his Pravda (1969), comparing her to "enemies of the people," but what was her response? Why, a chuckle, of course.

An overdue comeback after the forced hiatus, The Apple Game (1976) is perhaps her most accessible effort, an almost-romcom about a gynecologist (played by none other than Jirí Menzel!) and his nurse. Thus began Chytilová's "infantile libertine" cycle continued in The Very Late Afternoon of a Faun (1983) and A Hoof Here, a Hoof There (1989). The pattern, however, is inverted in Calamity (1982), where Honza, a bashful train operator, tries in vain to hide from the lust of women around him. Women and men tend to be equally laughable in Chytilová's world.

The beauty of a full retrospective is that one can actually see the consistency of her output and trace its distinct periods. First comes a brief infatuation with cinéma vérité: Ceiling (1962), A Bagful of Fleas (1962), Something Different (1963); then a spate of collaborations with Ester Krumbachová, the driving force behind the Czech New Wave, now pushed to the footnotes of film history: Daisies, Fruit of Paradise, The Very Late Afternoon of a Faun. That era was followed by another cluster of collaborations, just as fruitful, this time around with the mime and playwright Boleslav Polívka: Calamity, The Jester and the Queen (1988), The Inheritance or Fuckoffguysgoodday (1993), Expulsion From Paradise (2001). A corpus of documentaries on Prague (Prague – Restless Heart of Europe, Troja — Changes in Time), colleagues (Chytilová Versus Forman, Rises and Falls, In Search of Ester, Pokus a chyba Ivana Vyskocila), and female empowerment (Where Are You Going, Girls?, Troublemakers): put together, they add up to a personal diary of Chytilová's life.

Věra Chytilová shooting Time Is Relentless

In another successful evasion of labels, Věra Chytilová—this pioneering female filmmaker, director of activist documentaries on women's rights, and archivist of injustices and humiliations perpetrated against her gender—resented being called a feminist. In 2006, she ran for Senate as a candidate from the Equal Chance, the Czech Republic's women party. Madeleine Lundin remarks in her "A Study of Gender Oriented Organizations in the Czech Republic and Their Channels of Influence": “The party did not manage to acquire much support from the general public and only received 0.2 percent of the votes in the election. Support was low in feminist circles as well, mainly because of the party’s orientation towards second wave essentialism – in which the existence of certain inherent or "natural" differences between the sexes (aside from the biological differences), rather than socially construed ones, are assumed – thus stressing the need to feminize politics (and all other venues in society) in order to make it equal. This ambition simply was completely contrary to the beliefs of the majority of feminists in the country, who to a larger degree advocate gender equality based on the argument that all individuals are equal.” The feminists' reception of Chytilová's work was mixed at best: for instance, her exceedingly radical Traps (1998), a darkly comic rape-revenge tale involving castration, was praised as often as it was reviled. However, as film scholar Peter Hames points out, “it is worth noting that her key films preceded the development of feminist film writing in the 1970s. If she travelled the same route, it was in a different context.”

"Why do you make movies? What do you live for?" persists the filmmaker in Chytilová Versus Forman (1981). A grown woman and an accomplished director, she nevertheless asks seemingly naive questions of Forman as well as of herself, thereby revealing the very essence of her directorial M.O.: she is direct, quizzical, overwrought. Perhaps the latter best describes the high-strung tensions that surge among her characters. In my opinion, each one of Chytilová's films is positioned between two poles, creation and destruction, with the narrative frantically oscillating from one to the other like the needle of a malfunctioning speedometer on some runaway train. Even in Troja — Changes in Time, a tranquil doc that wanders through the eponymous neighborhood in Prague where Chytilová lived for nearly 30 years building houses and raising children, havoc is wreaked—if inadvertently—when a sudden flood interrupts the shoot. Also destructive at its core, aging becomes the dominant theme of Time is Relentless, The Very Late Afternoon of a Faun, and Pleasant Moments (in the latter, Chytilová speaks of old age with a particular knowing softness reminiscent of Alain Resnais' Coeurs).

The world being created (Fruit of Paradise, Expulsion From Paradise), children being born (The Apple Game), houses being built (Panelstory), a new regime and new state emerging (The Inheritance or Fuckoffguysgoodday, Traps)—none of it, ultimately, stands the test of humanity. Panelstory, perhaps Chytilová's magnum opus and definitely her most Kira Muratova-esque endeavor, is more than a master class in editing (it is for good reason that Jacques Rivette prioritized this aspect of her filmmaking; see the article “Montage” by Rivette, Sylvie Pierre and Jacques Narboni in Cahiers du cinéma [No. 210, March 1969, republished in Rivette: Texts and Interviews (Jonathan Rosenbaum, BFI, 1977)]) or a slice of excellent political satire—it also shows, with startling clarity, a Tower of Babylon, in this case a group of tenants in a housing development, losing its common language. Indeed, one would be hard-pressed to find a Chytilová film in which human beings wouldn't be busy destroying each other. It is always like in Daisies, where one cuts the other open. The aesthetics of buffoonery is so apt for Chytilová’s works, making the agitated camera spin from character to character as they chase each other for sex, profit, or pleasure, yelling and gesticulating in a Tom-and-Jerry-like frenzy. Not even an alien invasion (Wolf’s Chalet) can bring people together in solidarity. Can we call Chytilová a misanthrope, though? Absolutely not. For many years, she watched the abiding human comedy unfold. She once called Something Different "a drama about the eternal struggle for immortality amidst the finality of human powers." If we replaced "drama" with "comedy," this definition would apply to all of her films without exception.

This article was originally written for Doclisboa's 2017 Věra Chytilová retrospective. "The Anarchic Cinema of Věra Chytilová" runs April 10–18, 2019 at BAMcinématek in Brooklyn.

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