[9 August 2005]
In the explosion of energy and talent of Czech film in the 1960s, no one had more style and irreverence than Vera Chytilová. Daisies (Sedmikrasky), her best known film, radically satirized the moral hypocrisies and simple-minded assumptions of a chauvinistic society with fast-paced formalism punctuated by absurdist montages, a striking color palette, and two protagonists named Marie.
The Czech New Wave was brutally suppressed following the Soviet invasion of 1968. Many films by directors who remained in Czechoslovakia featured tragic, not satiric, ends; some were banned or never completed. The transition between the light-hearted Daisies and morose Fruit of Paradise (Ovoce stromu rajskych jime) is a depressing illustration of this sudden change.
Fruit concerns the Adam and Eve story, usually fodder for Catholic sermonizing on soliciting senseless guilt. But Chytilová starts by asking an interesting question: isn’t it rational to eat from the tree of knowledge? The film opens before “the fall,” as Adam and Eve (here Josef and Eva) wander nude through an Eden depicted through superimposing images of red, brown, and yellow leaves and flora over the two in a park. A choir chants the opening passages of Genesis over baroque music. This Eden is not exactly paradise, but more an ignorant dream state, the confusing in-the-moment state of a newborn child.
The switch to the fallen world is marked by the choir chanting, “On the day you eat thereof, your eyes shall be opened and ye shall be as gods, knowing both good and evil,” followed by “Tell me the truth,” repeated with increasing intensity. A new, clothed Josef and Eva (now played by Karel Novak and Jitka Novákova) lie on a park bench. Fruit focuses on Eva from this point on, as she explores her new surroundings, which resemble a kind of spa resort, and becomes obsessed with a red-suited serial killer named Robert (Jan Schmid). This new world of “truth” and opened eyes is seen through an unfiltered color palette and something resembling a narrative, as compared to the swirling images of before.
Chytilová conveys Eva’s awakening to moral complications through visual and aural distortions. A fish-eye lens exaggerates their actual and desired distances. Oscillating voice volumes, reverberations, action deceleration and acceleration, and choppy editing make her experience seem a druggy nightmare. Dressed in a red version of the white dress typically associated with Alice (of Wonderland fame), Eva confronts not the wisdom of the world, but its absurdity. When she discovers Robert’s identity, she feels removed from her previous self, alienated from Josef (now a philanderer), and desperate to return to her innocent state. But this is impossible. When Eva tries climbing back over the wall to Eden, once again repeating, “Tell me the truth,” she can no longer communicate with Josef. She pushes a red flower she has offered to him towards the camera lens.
In All The Bright Young Men and Women, Josef Skvorecky notes that Fruit of Paradise is about the “God who dogmatically forbids people to eat from the tree of knowledge and about the Devil who rationally tempts us to do so.” That people will seek this knowledge is unquestionable. In fact, Robert doesn’t actively tempt Eva, he wanders around and she tries to figure him out. A philosophical inquiry into our reactions to such intellectual awakening, the movie considers as well how we come to define morality, rather than taking it as a given from God. Critiquing willful ignorance, the movie presents characters living outside the garden as lazy and complacent, easy prey for Robert. The fruit here is either withered in unfertile soil or grotesquely misused, stuffed into dresser drawers and mashed into punch bowls.
Where Daisies gleefully throws off society’s repressions, Fruit is about the limitations of the individual. Indeed, Czech society was on the verge of a dark period where it would become increasingly corrupt under its Communist government over the next 20 years. The film suggests that the boundary to knowledge will always be breached because humans are attracted to death, even as they attempt to understand life.