There was little that could prepare the world for the release of Věra Chytilová’s incredible Daisies in 1966, even looking at her own prior output would have been largely in vain. Prior to the philosophical anarchy of her most celebrated piece, she was more concerned with mild formal experimentation and the potential of cinéma vérité. In Ceiling, her mid-length debut which was her graduation film from the famous Czech state film school FAMU, she eschewed narrative to create an abstract documentary portrait of a model. Her next two films were A Bagful of Fleas in 1962 and Something Different the following year; both adopted a similar aesthetic and both have now been released on UK DVD for the first time by Second Run who are building a laudable collection of Chytilová’s work.
Neither of these films offer enormous advances on Ceiling, but both are further examples of female-centric cinema which quietly push boundaries and progress the filmmaker’s thematic concerns as she moves towards the considerably more impressive and idiosyncratic duo of Daisies and 1970’s sensational take on Adam and Eve, Fruit of Paradise. Much like those later works, which ran into trouble with the censors – and saw Chytilová banned for the best part of a decade – A Bagful of Fleas courted controversy. It was set in the same milieu as Milos Forman’s acclaimed A Blonde in Love, the Náchod cotton mills where female staff outnumbered males by some way. In Chytilová’s mid-length film she affected a vérité style for a completely fictional tale of a group of young women, one of whom ends up in trouble with the Works Committee.
While the overseers at the mill were unimpressed with their portrayal in the film, Chytilová makes some interesting choices that foreshadow her later formal development. The chattering, giggling young women can quite easily be read as precursors to the two leads in Daisies but more interesting are a scene conducted entirely in the dark (as the girls talk after lights out) and the general use of the camera as the point of view of character, named Eva. A good many years before the advent of the found footage genre, this inserts the viewer as a participant in the action. There’s nothing quite so ground-breaking in Something Different, Chytilová’s first feature length film, instead it weaves together the documentary story of champion gymnast, Eva Bosáková, with the fictional life of an unfulfilled housewife, Věra (Věra Ucelacová).
The two women’s lives are both struck by a certain existential crises – Eva questioning her career and Věra her marriage – which are criss-crossed to emphasise the highs, lows, similarities and differences through juxtaposition and match cuts. As with her later films, while Chytilová is filmmaking with a definite feminist bent, she is more interested in complex female characters and she never moralises on their behalf as much as questioning both the choices available to them and those that they take. Neither woman seems to end Something Different as victor, at least where their happiness is concerned. In the meantime, Chytilová manages to have a little visual fun with how she shoots and frames Eva’s practices and her competing at the 1962 World Championships. A shot in which the camera spins 180 degrees with a cartwheel is probably a highlight, but much like A Bagful of Fleas, Something Different has more flashes of interest than the sustained brilliance that Chytilová would later exhibit.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson