Without Risking It All, You Can’t Discover Anything

10 April 2019

Czech Film

Without Risking It All, You Can’t Discover Anything

The Anarchic Cinema of Věra Chytilová: A Retrospective in America


The fierce personality and piercing intellect of Věra Chytilová is immortalized through her groundbreaking films. Thanks to interviews and documentary portraits, we can glimpse it directly. The constant dialogue Chytilová conducted with herself, her audience, and the people surrounding her—that was the foundation, the means, and the goal of her art. “Why?” was her most frequent question. She wanted to expose what leads a person to make a decision, to understand a different point of view.

Article by Irena Kovarova for Czech Film Magazine / Summer 2019

Chytilová was an artist who wanted absolute freedom, even if it led her to mistakes. She believed that you learn more from mistakes than from successes. She was convinced that without risk, there is no gain, no discovery.

The first time Chytilová risked it all was when she decided, at the ripe age of 28, to study film directing. She abandoned her previous life, going all in for a career that in her time still wasn’t pursued by many women. Already at the entrance exam, she challenged the committee who represented the dominant filmmaking style of the day: She wanted to direct films because she didn’t like what she saw in cinemas—the mere illustration of stories. Throughout her career she prodded the form, unafraid to interfere with the story through the use of associations, deforming the structure, image, or content. She sought to capture life in its ordinary situations and feelings. She didn’t seek originality, but a better means to express what she wanted to say. To spark a dialogue with her audience. To get to the core of the truth, express the flow of life, and disrupt reality. Her interest lay in the author’s relationship to what is unfolding, her stance to the story, what she thinks of it. In her view, a film should contribute to understanding and compassion.

Often impatient and raging, Chytilová called herself a tigress. She was a cub of the tiger she saw in her beloved father. Her family gave her the strength and freedom to become what she longed to be. She in turn offered the same to her children, artists in their own right. Grounded in her family and relationships with her husband, cinematographer Jaroslav Kučera, and her close friend, screenwriter and costume designer Ester Krumbachová, Chytilová created new worlds. She had an insatiable thirst for filmmaking, taken from her at the height of her artistic prowess after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.

For six years she wasn’t allowed to make feature films, yet she refused to consider herself a banned artist, fighting the system every step of the way, with every weapon available: “Men fear a ‘hysterical woman’.” She became notorious for screaming and complaining. The fight kept her believing she would be back behind the camera. And return she did, uncompromising as ever, skillfully circumventing every obstacle, beating the establishment at their own game of words. Being a woman, in Chytilová’s eyes, wasn’t a handicap. She felt equal and refused to accept any limitations. She believed that merit trumped gender, saying: “To think otherwise is nonsense. I don’t have time for that.” Nonetheless her individualism and frank portrayal of women made her a feminist icon.

The year Chytilová would have turned 90, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, in New York City, put on a retrospective to celebrate this icon with a survey of her career. First, the early films, centering on the theme of women searching for their limits and daring to surpass them (Ceiling, A Bagful of Fleas, Something Different). Next, her exceptional contributions to the Czechoslovak New Wave canon, with Automat Svět (from the omnibus Pearls of the Deep) and the rebellious and convention-breaking Daisies and Fruits of Paradise, her most important collaborations with Kučera and Krumbachová. Then come the films from the period after the ban on her was lifted: The Apple Game, which put male weakness on full display, and Panelstory, a blunt exposé of the shallowness and realities of a system striving for communism only in name. The director’s lesser-known work from the 1980s was represented here by The Jester and the Queen, The Very Late Afternoon of a Faun, and her take on teen horror, Wolf’s Hole. The post-1989 period, when her country abandoned the communist dream for the promise of freedom in capitalism, Chytilová showed her satirical might in The Inheritance or Fuckoffguysgoodday and the edgy rape revenge farce Traps. Her final film, Pleasant Moments, marks a return to her overarching theme of a woman looking to find her own voice and strength to follow her own path.

“We’ve loved Věra Chytilová’s films for years here at BAM and were honoured to run a restoration of Daises back in 2012. Her work – so personal and political yet also exciting and funny – represents the exact kind of film artists we want to support here at BAM. With so few of her films in available in the United States the chance to present a survey of her entire career is a real thrill, introducing people that may only have seen Daisies to the full scope of her films – decades of daring work that demands to be seen. We are also excited to be showcasing films by the younger generation of fabulous Czech filmmakers that she mentored during her time at FAMU, showing the incredible present and future of Czech cinema,” explained Jesse Trussell, curator at BAM.

To complete the retrospective, BAM Film presented the extraordinary documentary portrait Journey, by Jasmina Blažević, and a sampling of recent works by Chytilová’s students at the Prague film academy FAMU, who carry on her torch of personal filmmaking: Olmo Omerzu’s ironic melodrama of family implosion, Family Film; the fearlessly feminist indictment of sexual assault and the Slovak mental health system Filthy (Tereza Nvotová); and the biting comedy of quarter-life anxiety Dreamers (Jitka Rudolfová).

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