Chytilová's heroines rebelliously try to subvert the patriarchal system and gender stereotypes—and fail. Małgorzata Radkiewicz examines the plight of female leads in two of Chytilová's most famous films.
Although Sedmikrásky (Daisies, 1966) and Pasti, pasti, pastičky (Traps, 1998) were made in completely different contexts, both these films by Věra Chytilová can be seen as a kind of continuation, especially in terms of female representation. First of all, they present interesting, unconventional portraits of individual female personalities. Furthermore, they paint an excellent picture of Czech culture and society described from an alternative point of view that, over the years, has been shared by non-conformists, artists and intellectuals.
Questioning the importance and the value of any order or system—political, social or cultural—Chytilová's film were in deliberate revolt against cinematic genres and dominating notions of representation. As a filmmaker, Chytilová has worked out her own style, which she uses consistently to create a subjective vision of female individuality. Drawing on the typical structures of Czech culture and cinematic tradition, she emphasised the uniqueness of each "self" and the distance that can exist between the individual interpretation of gender and its social interpretations.
Angry heroines in a patriarchal structure
Throughout Sedmikrásky and Pasti, pasti, pastičky, Chytilová persistently explored the complex relationship between the gender identity of her female characters and the repressive, patriarchal structure of the society they belong to. Although not many feminist projects existed in central and east European cinema when she began to critically comment on the conventional male-dominated culture, Chytilová's opinions can be regarded as very close to a feminist orientation. This feminist approach is a main feature of her films, which are all in some way notable for being representative of women's "counter cinema" and its revolutionary methods.
Based on formal innovation and avant-garde experiments, most of these methods drew primarily upon the traditions of the European new waves and were taking apart or deconstructing the methods of classical cinema. Chytilová's artistic strategy, so clearly presented in films such as Sedmikrásky and Pasti pasti, pastičky, puts her among other female filmmakers who have deliberately deconstructed traditional methods in both fictional and documentary accounts in the belief that cinema cannot simply and transparently reflect women's experience but it is always necessary to construct versions of that experience.
Chytilová has set herself against the notions of mainstream cinema and produced a new kind of record thanks to which she has been able to revise and re-imagine the category of femininity, a category that has been always described in terms of traditional gender interpretations. Despite formal and ideological difficulties, Chytilová developed in Sedmikrásky a subjective vision, filled with a sense of irony and humour, of the painful adolescence of two "spoiled" (zkažené) girls, Marie I and Marie II, who are trying to act out their lives. The unconventional plot revoles around a series of unconnected escapades as the two girls use their femininity and mock naivity to run rings around a succession of older men. The audacity of their rebellious spirit culminates in a spectacular food fight in a hall, laid out in advance for a grand banquet. After this, the two promise to mend their ways and make attempts to repair the damage they have done.
The plot of Sedmikrásky, as well as its two main female characters, reflect Chytilová's fascination with experimental forms and avant-garde genres, based on which she has elaborated her own way of artistic expression. Rejecting traditional illusionist methods and realist narrative models, she proposes a subjective interpretation of gender identity within a social and cultural structure.
The story of the two Maries is shown from two parallel perspectives: personal and social. The first one seems to dominate in all scenes that present nobody but the girls talking to each other and doing strange things, such as cutting fruit with scissors before eating them. Such a personal point of view emphasises the inert world of both adolescents and the emotions, feelings and opinions they use to define their personality. Judging by their conversations, they perceive themselves as independent women, free from any restrictive notions. When one asks: "Say it's great," the other one answers, "I'll say what I want." There is no doubt about their self-confidence, as openly declared in the statement: "Anyway, we are young, after all. We've got our whole life ahead of us!".
Chytilová herself is more sceptical about their possibilities in life, limited as they are by stereotyped images of women. In her sarcastic comments, Chytilová argues that—intentionally or not—one always repeats common interpretations of gender identity. When Marie II accuses her namesake of having crooked legs, Marie I answers: "Don't you know I based my personality on them?" On the one hand, the answer explains her uncomplicated and unstable personality, on the other hand, it deconstructs social and cultural categories that define femininity and women only in terms of their bodies and physical attributes.
Questioning traditional definitions of gender identity, Chytilová revises conventional images of women and replaces them with their alternative versions. She expands the area of interests from particular characters to the whole culture and social structures. Rather than a story of two self-centred girls, Sedmikrásky should be considered as an interpretation of cultural and social mechanisms in which femininity is repressed by strict models and notions that one is obliged to follow. In such a structure, there could be no place left for free expression and creativity; nevertheless, Chytilová consistently departs from the patterns of mainstream cinema and the process of cinematic communication by subverting the representation of women. On closer inspection, Sedmikrásky and Pasti, pasti, pastičky appear to be more about being a woman in a patriarchal structure in general than a simply plot.
Gender stratification of Czech society
Judging by these two films, Chytilová has obviously been influenced by the feminist movement and its counter-cultural ideas that make her interested in women's experience of life and the way in which gender and sexual identity are stimulated and formed by cultural, social and mental notions and stereotypes. Many anthropologists consider gender symbolism to be basic to all cultures. Some of them, like the Czech culture presented in Sedmikrásky and Pasti, pasti, pastičky, have highly elaborated complex notions of gender, regulating virtually all aspects of social life and defining everyday activities and social roles.
In Pasti, pasti, pastičky, a young vet is raped when her car breaks down and she is forced to hitchhike. Following the rape, she feigns amnesia and tricks her attackers back to her house where gives them drinks spiked with sedatives and then uses her occupational skill to castrate them. Her revenge is not enough to free of the memory of her attack, and she becomes increasingly desperate to seek justice for the pair. They in turn try to cover up their crime and adjust to their emasculated existence.
In showing the consequences of the brutal rape in Pasti, pasti, pastičky, Chytilová is greatly concerned about portraying another aspect of some apparently objective norms. Above all, she wants to present how gender stratification reflects the common organisation of Czech society and is reinforced by the shared normative systems of Czech culture. Furthermore, she stresses that the social roles assigned to women and men are not simply different, but also differently evaluated and differently rewarded.
As some of feminist theorists argue, there is a strict hierarchical ranking of sex groups that separates activities and behaviours of males and females, and what males do is more highly valued and differently estimated that what females do. Such thinking supplies a motive to the end of Pasti, pasti, pastičky when the men responsible for the rape are declared to be not guilty while their victim is accused of having an asocial attitude and sent to be hospitalised in a psychiatric clinic.
In Sedmikrásky, Chytilová's position towards gender, however, seems to be more ironic and distanced than respectful, which is reflected in her filming strategies. In Pasti, pasti, pastičky, she goes much further, and overpowers viewers with a conclusion that is not only sceptical but also pessimistic. The ending shows how gender is reproduced in each generation and in social institutions. She critically comments on the stability of cultural notions and contemptuously defines the range of stereotypes.
The end of rebels
On the one hand, in her portraits of rebel heroines, so free and independent, there is no place for a limiting definition of gender roles. On the other hand, what appears on the screen is a vision of a very painful confrontation between the idealism of "angry young girls" and the down-to-earth realities that imprison them in a cage of conventional female features and qualities. In spite of their strong individuality, women in Sedmikrásky and Pasti, pasti, pastičky are forced to sanctify and respect the patriarchal order. Although they try to reject its rules, everyone expects them to follow the gender stratification in order to comply with the requirements and expectations of the whole society.
Feminist theorists intensify and enlarge the volume of research on sex differences; furthermore, they also place emphasis on the learning of sex roles (as girls in Sedmikrásky do) arguing that most of them are induced by environmental pressures and the reality of the social, cultural and economic context. Although Chytilová might not be automatically identified with feminist theorists, she shares the opinion and consistently believes that the social expectations, rules and norms attached to a person's position in society usually force individuals to conform to them through the identification with the parent of their particular sex.
In such circumstances, the counter-cultural interpretation of gender must be limited to very personal aspects of life and might not be extended to its social and cultural context. Thus, the female characters from Chytilová's films remain angry, young creatures whose pathetic rebellion must be put down to a response to their lack of experience and knowledge. After a series of revolutionary acts, Chytilová's heroines are forced to subdue their rebellious ideas and submissively declare: "We don't want to be spoiled anymore," as Marie I and Marie II do at the end of Sedimkrásky.
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