Foreplays is a column that explores under-known short films by renowned directors. Vera Chytilová's Ceiling (1962) is free to watch below.
Cinema wasn’t Vera Chytilová’s first vocation. Before enrolling at FAMU (The Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague), she had studied architecture and philosophy, and did various jobs. For a time, she worked as a fashion model—an experience that, undoubtedly, provided inspiration for Strop ("Ceiling"), her graduation short film of 1962, directed when she was already in her thirties.
Watching Ceiling, one is immediately reminded of certain scenes from Hollywood’s classical period that feature female characters, often from modest origins, working as models. I’m thinking of particular moments in Caught (Max Ophüls, 1949), Pitfall (Andre DeToth, 1948), or Mannequin (Frank Borzage, 1937) that hint at how, below the fashion milieu’s image of glamor and sophistication, lies an environment of harassment, entrapment, and exploitation that has to be endured by the models. Ceiling brings this idea to the forefront and amplifies it, combining Chytilová’s taste for formal and narrative experimentation with her incisive critical eye.
Marta (Marta Kanovská), the protagonist of Ceiling, is a Czech girl who has dropped her study of medicine to become a fashion model. The film is composed of a series of scenes tracing a day in her life: an appointment with the hairdresser; a photo session; her walk through the shopping area; the chance encounter with an friend that ends in a shared lunch; a costume test; her beauty routine at home; a fashion parade followed by a party in a nightclub; a domestic dispute with her lover; and finally a nocturnal drift across the city streets. Using a careful narrative construction that bursts with unexpected revelations only in the final scenes, Chytilová crafts a poignant portrait of her protagonist’s ennui, favoring a sense of immediacy, proximity, and observation over psychological or sociological explanations.
In Ceiling, Chytilová sets out to offer us an insider’s view of the fashion business. Her camera lurks in the margins, the backstage, the in-betweens, trespassing the superficial image sold to customers. The film starts with a close shot of Marta, appearing from behind a curtain. As she walks, turns and poses, the shot is frozen several times, the credits superimposed on her still image. Afterwards, the scene to which this shot belongs unfolds: surrounded by the people gathered in the stalls and the galleries of a theatre, Marta strides the catwalk in a black outfit. Chytilová inserts close-ups of the audience, all gazes fixed on the model. Twenty minutes later, this scene is reintroduced. This time, we see the same action from different perspectives, but Chytilová also includes a backstage prologue: two minutes in which, among every kind of interruption, the girls get their make-up ready, rehearse poses, cover their hairdos with handkerchiefs, and put on their costumes, accessories, and jewelry while the seamstresses make their last touches to the dresses.
In the middle of this backstage scene, a typically Chytilován, anarchic outbreak takes place: a rebellious girl refuses to go on stage with a tulle hat that she deems horrible. At the last minute, this black hat will be put on Marta, who wears it without complaining, while her colleague is forbidden to parade. But, as we shall see, that Marta obeys here doesn’t mean she’s happy. In Chytilová’s films, each woman is irked or pleased at different things. Each woman has to find her own way to cope, resist, flee, or rebel. Each woman has to craft her own response, strategy, or escape. And there is no right decision for all, just as there is no single revolution that fits everyone.
One of the strongest, most physical sensations we receive from Ceiling concerns the way in which Marta’s body, gestures, and movements are always reclaimed and appropriated by others: spectators in a parade; seamstresses, designers, and photographers in the workplace; pedestrians and students; female customers who recognize her from a magazine; young boys and older men who fancy her at parties. Marta is a full-time object to be dissected, admired, envied, acknowledged, desired, or dismissed by all these gazes, in almost every scene of the film. In the photoshoot sequence, where Marta poses for a cameraman in several locations, Chytilová uses the image of two guys following a tennis match to bridge the shots happening in these different settings—but also to emphasize Marta’s constant subjection to the public eye.
The street scene during Marta’s break allows the director to begin exploring the relationship between figure and crowd. Like any other citizen, Marta walks the streets, looks at the shop windows, and buys a gift for her lover. But, with her bright and modern summer dress, she stands out in the multitude. Next to her, all passers-by look alike: an indistinct, grey mass, covered in working-class clothes. A few unimportant incidents give color to this scene, which possesses the rhythmical, gag-like quality beloved of Chytilová. Amidst all the city buzz, the director knows how to point with precision toward a significant look or gesture: when Marta is stopped at a pedestrian pass by her friend, Honza (Jaroslaw Satoranský), the film rapidly cuts to a third character, Joey (Josef Abrhám)—who, even before having been introduced to Marta, is already smitten by her.
If, in the street, some passers-by turn their heads toward Marta to look at her, she doesn’t pass unnoticed in the canteen where the three characters go to lunch, either. Marta catches the attention of several people forming a queue; afterwards, a guy (played by director Jiří Menzel) who sells her a voucher looks droolingly at her; at some point, an unwanted admirer who seems to have followed her to the canteen makes an appearance. And, while all this happens, Chytilová registers Marta’s efforts to hide the fact that she is an intruder in this place (she lets the boys think that she’s still enrolled in medicine), and that, nowadays, she frequents more sophisticated joints (in several shots, she’s caught looking suspiciously at the food and drink).
Despite all this, Marta seems to enjoy the company. Her presence triggers much fuss around her, and she laughs earnestly at all this light nonsense. Then, something marvelous happens: as Marta becomes more relaxed, Chytilová’s camera aligns with her gaze and starts wandering around the canteen. While Joey sings and plays “Chlupatý kaktus” at the piano, a popular jazz tune by the avant-garde artist Emil František Burian, Chytilová offers us a mosaic of the canteen’s multicultural youth. Tied to the passing of time, the consumption of food, and the progression of the music, we are presented with a freewheeling catalogue of faces and gestures: boys and girls eating, talking, smoking, musing, reading the newspaper. This drift is a veritable breath of fresh air, a moment of relief where Marta’s body stops being the center of attention.
Ceiling paves the way for Chytilová’s remarkable first feature, Something Different (1963). In that film, she depicts the life of two women (a housewife and an elite gymnast) who, despite all their evident differences, feel similarly asphyxiated by their respective routines. In Ceiling, Marta’s conflict with her job is not that she is unable to perform it. In fact, she’s very good at it: even when striking the most artificial pose, even when her body contorts to render the most prefabricated gesture, she appears weightless, effortless, graceful. But Marta starts feeling caught in the chains of her repetitive routine. Her job (that may have been, at some point, exciting for her) starts feeling too laborious.
Chytilová is interested in such examples of exhaustion. She pays special attention to preparatory and in-between moments. She privileges those gestures performed before the show, and between the photographs, because they fully manifest Marta’s exhaustion, boredom, and sense of meaninglessness: the body losing its composure, the eyes wandering around, the heaviness of the feet, the disheveled hair, and a smile turning into a yawn. By incorporating all these unglamorous states of the organic body at work, Chytilová tears up the superficial image of the model as seen in photographs, advertising graphics, or fashion shows.
Chytilová gives Marta her own body back. She releases her from the series of predetermined poses ordered by others into an array of movements made at her own rhythm. Kanovská’s striking photogénie passes from being at the service of selling a product to becoming an event in itself. While Marta’s work demands that she comes up with a variety of gestures that amount to the same, mass-produced, frozen impression (as is clearly seen in the photo shoot and fashion parade), Chytilová allows her to become an uncontrollable, unpredictable parade of expressions (in the hairdresser, we see how her face goes though a full range of emotions in a couple of minutes: pain, anger, tenderness, relief, laughter, tiredness, satisfaction). That’s how Chytilová counteracts, without denying, the violence of the fashion business.
In Ceiling, Marta’s voice is hardly heard, and this decision is in itself a powerful statement. It’s always the others who speak: giving orders, making judgements, offering remarks. In the first scene, a female voice describes Marta’s clothes for the attentive audience. Later, the hairdresser fusses over Marta’s hair as he laments its ruined state and recommends a new hairdo. When Marta poses for a costume test, the other girls chat in a corner, gossiping about her admirer. At home, to evade her loneliness, Marta listens to a children’s story on the radio while she prepares for her beauty routine.
The director likes to use the voice as an almost excessive layer that not only accompanies the image, but also adds something to it, performing an extra function. During the photo shoot, a sarcastic male voice, acting like a gossipy reader of a cheap magazine, acidly ridicules everything: from Marta’s figure (“she’s got varicose veins”) and the clothes’s imperfections (“the skirt is hanging on by a thread”) to the stupidity of the whole set-up (as she poses next to some religious sculptures and paintings, the voice wonders: “What is this? A contest of saintliness?”).
Ceiling takes its time laying out all its cards. Its final section presents a shift in terms both of narrative and mood. Across three different scenes, thanks to a string of revelations, we come to better understand Marta’s situation and personal dilemma. Coinciding with the passage from day to night, the plot tightens, the tone becomes more sinister, the atmosphere oneiric and claustrophobic.
The film perfectly exemplifies Chytilová’s interest in building each scene according to a particular exploration, commanded by its own set of principles. The nightclub scene is brilliantly modeled on a gangster movie template: characters form various group configurations, and the editing connects the dots of the shady deals happening beneath a surface of light entertainment. Initially, Marta sits at a table, having drinks with her boyfriend Julián (Julián Chytil) and other guys. But Julián doesn’t care much for her and, as soon as his business partner enters the room, he leaves her. We see the men talking while, in the background, another guy corrals a defenseless Marta into a dance. It becomes clear that the two partners are trying to close a deal with the third man, and Julián will allow him to flirt with Marta for the sake of their business.
When Marta escapes from the man’s claws, she sits alone at the bar. The Czech hit “Ach, ta láska nebeská” (“Heavenly Love”) plays on the soundtrack and, as she drinks and sulks in a mix of anger and despair, two images are intercut, suggesting a hellish connection: she and Julián flirting; the predatory man kissing another girl. Honza and Joey appear unexpectedly at the bar. The latter recites some lines from Robertson Jeffers (“Does it matter whether you hate yourself? At least love your eyes that can see, your mind that can hear the music, the thunder of wings”) that make Marta even gloomier. The bothersome man approaches her once more, but she rejects him. Finally, once the deal is sealed, Julián appears from off-screen and takes her home. This sequence in which Marta is surrounded and solicited by men—good men, bad men, men with idealistic or unscrupulous intentions, it doesn’t matter—is a formidable depiction of a gender siege, worthy of The Big Combo (Joseph H. Lewis, 1955).
During the cab ride to Julián’s home, Marta initially rebuffs him, but ends up surrendering. The lights of the city blink out of focus through the cab’s back window. As Marta and Julián kiss, the lyrics of the song talk, ironically, about how “life without love knows no happiness.” The scene in Julián’s apartment contrasts vividly with the earlier sequence at Marta’s place: while her apartment was humble and messy, decorated with only a small reproduction, some flowers in a bottle, and a doll hanging in the corner, Julián’s home is cold and sophisticated, full of expensive items suggesting that he is some kind of art collector or dealer. This scene comes with another revelation that gives an unexpected weight to everything we’ve seen: Marta has had a pregnancy scare, and while she was happily considering the prospect of motherhood, Julián is relieved that it’s not going to happen.
In this scene, where Julián speaks in monologue mode while Marta remains silent, we find another great example of Chytilová’s work with the voice. He lectures Marta about her future, her profession, motherhood and marriage. He even rambles (why not?) about the nature of men. “I should have been a philosopher,” muses this man of conviction. And he goes on and on, like the voice pouring from Marta’s radio in an earlier scene. But while Marta remains voiceless, she has achieved, by this stage of the story, a full-blown agency. Her silence speaks louder than a verbal confrontation. She is no longer the frozen image of a commercial. She’s a pure, fierce, defiant presence. When Julián slaps her in the bathroom, Marta leaves. And, alone, she starts wandering the streets.
Marta’s nocturnal walk is constructed as the reverse of the previous, diurnal street scene. While Ceiling is full of stylistic eccentricities (false point-of-view shots, subjective inserts, lack or delay of establishing views, sudden overhead angles), this may be the most impressive scene in terms of its surreal eeriness, accentuated by atonal music. It starts with the camera gliding across a shop window where we see three women in framed advertisements. Then it moves onto Marta walking the deserted streets like a zombie, in her high heels. The flashing images of a couple kissing, a man lighting a cigarette, or some workers with soldering irons, seem like veritable ghostly apparitions. A disturbing close-up of Marta gazing into the camera knocks us out. The shop windows, displaying nude mannequins with covered eyes or kitchen utensils, have an apocalyptic aura at this hour. Lamps and neons blink in the sky. Marta takes an escalator and ends up looking at herself in a mirror, her face eaten by darkness. In the next shot, it’s already daylight. Marta runs anxiously across a garden of lined trees, stops at the entrance, and contemplates the vast landscape.
Chytilová had to fight her whole life against censorship: the bans and exclusion imposed on her by the Czech authorities. Many of her films portray a state of rebellion against every kind of power structure or authoritarian condition (whether a person, an organization, a routine, or a lifestyle) that drains the life out of her protagonists. Sometimes, as in the celebrated Daisies (1966), her characters need a revolution based on total wreckage and anarchy. But, at other times, all they need is a small-scale change, a detour, a different landscape, or—as in the title of that great David Bowie song—a new career in a new town.
In a brief epilogue, Marta is seen on a train, surrounded by humble families with kids. We don’t know for certain where she’s going. But she’s leaving, taking the reins of her life. She’s offered a piece of homemade cake and eats it, smiling. Rain starts falling, forming diagonal stripes in the window. And, as the train advances, we are filled with a breathtaking sense of freshness and liberation.