The void behind the mask
the films of Věra Chytilová
The mortality of human life and the shallowness of existence are repeated themes in Chytilová’s work. Ivana Košuličová explores how these themes are realized through the concept of the game.
The films of Czech director Věra Chytilová provoke controversial reactions from audiences, as well as from film critics. They are always up-to-date, sharply evaluating the current state of the society and eternal human weaknesses.
The director uses many ways to articulate her position regarding the moral problems of contemporary society and her perception of the world. One of these methods is the use of exaggeration, a means that often invites inconsistent reactions from the audience; another is the use of games, and it is this latter device that we will focus on in the following text.
We can find various instances of games and playfulness in the films of Chytilová—not only as an occurrence in the thematic-structural plan of the film but also as a creative experiment with film image or as a joyful play with Czech language. In this article, however, we will focus mostly on the principles of the game in the narrative structure of her films.
The principles of the game
By looking at three Chytilová films—Sedmikrásky (Daisies, 1966), Faunovo velmi pozdní odpoledne (The Very Late Afternoon of a Faun, 1983) and Kopytem sem, kopytem tam (Tainted Horseplay, 1988)—we can identify the main characteristics of the game as evident in the director’s work:
• The game is used to express the passivity, general immobilization of contemporary society and the formulation of the destructive principles.
• The players decide to play the game as a response to the social situation. The game becomes a substitute for real life. It allows the players to create a new existence, a new way of life independent from reality, subordinated only to the rules of the game.
• The game has meaning only in itself.
• Every game has its own rules. Breaking the rules brings about the end of the game.
• The game is endangered by reality. Elements of reality that break into the imaginary space of the game menace its existence and that of the players themselves.
• The game cannot be repeated because it is identified, mistaken with life itself. The end of the game is equivalent to the death of the players.
There are very specific and distinct kinds of game in each of the above-mentioned films. In Sedmikrásky, we watch a story of two girls (Marie I, Marie II). The film consists of a series of episodes in which the action happens according to the principle of the game they play, “vadí-nevadí” (“matters-doesn’t matter”). Each player has to do anything that her game partner wants her to. The one who doesn’t do so and “shows respect to certain norms and conventions—loses”. Both heroines provoke each other and try to reveal their boundaries. Both Maries lead their game as a free act into extremity where the creative act is transformed into destruction.
We can see a different kind of game in the film Faunovo velmi pozdní odpoledne, one that could be described as an erotic game. The old hero, Faun, is “hunting” for women. His game has only two rules that cannot be broken: never let a woman stay over night and never start anything with a colleague from work. When Faun breaks the first rule his life starts to break down. Breaking the second rule of his game has catastrophic consequences, bringing about the end of the game.
The group of spa town party animals in the film Kopytem sem, kopytem tam also creates a specific game system—in this case, one that we could call a “game-life” because they transfer all their actions, their whole life into the game.
In the beginning, the outside world seems to be a target that the players attack. The game looks like a way to disrupt conventions and take down the masks. But soon we realize that the game has a completely opposite function. It is an “asylum from bad conscience, a defense from surrounding apathy, […] the group grinds things unimportant as well as urgently fundamental into comfortably digestible mush. The bon vivant trio still has its ‘system-no system’ (řád-neřád), its rules, its language, and its hymns”.
The only thing that menaces this game is reality. Even when the players subdue reality by transforming it into a game they play, there remains a last fact that cannot be played: death. In this case, death comes in the guise of AIDS.
But there is also the partly allegoric figure of mysterious women with a pale face, dark glasses, wearing a coat with a hood. It is this character, a beautiful French woman, who infects Pepe with the deadly illness in Kopytem sem, kopytem tam. A similarly clothed woman (the character of Šéfka, the Boss) represents the figure of Death in the film Faunovo velmi pozdní odpoledne.
The choice of masks
One of the basic characteristics of any game is the possibility to choose a new existence, a new role that the player will play. In the swimming pool sequence in Sedmikrásky, the characters have the following dialogue:
[Marie II places a daisy chain on her head.]
Marie I: Co to děláš? (What are you doing?)
Marie II: Pannu. Jsem takhle jako panna, ne? – Já jsem panna. (I’m making a virgin. I look like a virgin like this, don’t I? I am a virgin).
Both heroines decide to be spoiled. They come up with various ways to realize their demoralization: they use lecherous old men to eat whatever they want for free, they smoke and steal just to accomplish their resolution to be spoiled. Their game “be spoiled” is focused mostly on the manipulation and use of men. The basic existence that the heroines chose for themselves within the game is that of spoiled girls. Their behaviour is then subordinated to this main pose. According to the situation, the girls put on masks that portray them as naïve, cynical, cheeky or sprightly.
The game expresses the conflict between the human and the world. For the heroes of Chytilová’s films, the game is the only possible answer to the life situation they are in. In Sedmikrásky, the two Maries start their game when they say:
Marie I: Všechno se nám kazí na tom světě. Víš co? Budeme zkažené i my! (Everything is spoiled in this world. You know what? We shall be spoiled too!).
Marie II: Vadí? (Does it matter?)
MarieI: Nevadí. (It doesn’t matter).
Compared to the intentionally schematic figures of the two Maries in the symbolic allegory of Sedmikrásky, the conception of the film Faunovo velmi pozdní odpoledne is created in a closer relationship to empiric reality. The only things that Faun can relate to in his existence are women. Chytilová emphasizes primarily his fear of responsibility that is hidden behind his seducer pose. The chosen role becomes an apposite way of covering his frustration.
Such motifs of frustration, disappointment, unsatisfied desire hidden in the world of the game are also present in Kopytem sem, kopytem tam. The three heroes try to escape from their life roles that don’t match their original ideas about themselves.
Biologist Dědek (Milan Šteindler), who went to study veterinary science to pursue his passion, has to write a thesis for the director’s daughter instead of working on his research. Cultural critic František (David Vávra) is disappointed by his unaccomplished theatre ambitions and stock inspector Pepe (Tomáš Hanák) inhibits his existence to erotic affairs. The game allows the characters to forget about the realities of their lives. Their masks of bon vivant allow them to stand against the absurd social situation with an escapist attitude that, through its playfulness, testifies to “forgetting the purpose of life.”
The game becomes an escape from the living sorrow and conflicts. The game is the possibility to create a “new world” where we can decide the rules by ourselves. The ecstasy that the heroes experience from the sudden free action has to be limited by time. No game can continue in perpetuity, completely isolated from real life. The heroes don’t realize it, because they have lost the boundary between the real world and the world of the game.
The aimlessness of the game
French anthropologist Roger Caillois sees the game as one of the basic phenomena of existence as original and peculiar as death, love, power or work. According to Caillois, the only thing that differentiates the game from the afore-mentioned phenomena is the fact that the game does not have a final goal.
One of the basic characteristics of game that Chytilová emphasizes is its aimlessness. The game has no other purpose than itself. From an existentialist perspective, being is realized through an act. If we limit our existence to our presence in the game, our existence—within the aimless system of the game—therefore has to be absurd.
Chytilová allows only few of the characters (Faun, Pepe) to get out of the game and reach reality—by understanding time, old age and mortality. For both characters, leaving the game means death. Only the two “sedmikrásky” get a second chance, a chance for atonement. But it is only a change of position, a changing of the masks of “spoiled” for the masks of “happy.”
Marie II: My jsme přece obě tak šťastné! No řekni, že jsme šťastné! (We are so happy! Say we are happy!)
Marie I: A hrajeme na to? (And are we playing at it?)
Marie II: Ne. My jsme přece doopravdy šťastné. (No. We really are happy.)
Marie I: Ale to nevadí. (But it doesn’t matter.)
The permanent fight against nothingness
Above all, Chytilová composes her films as an appeal. The game becomes a tool for the presentation of an empty lifestyle and a stymied existence. She provokes the spectator by pointing out the “shallowness of a certain way of life, the dangerous need for human prestige that leads to holding a pose perhaps until death, the incapability to be oneself and also the inability to be happy.”
From her films, we can conclude that the meaning of existence lies for Chytilová in the awareness that we exist in time and, simultaneously, in the awareness of our existence being limited by time. This seems to lead to understanding history as a unity of time and eternity. The director uses the theme of history, time and existence most clearly in her documentary films Čas je neúprosný (Time is Inexorable, 1978) and Praha, neklidné srdce Evropy (Prague: Restless Heart of Europe, 1984).
Chytilová does not perceive the human condition as being one in which all decisions are predetermined. Conversely, for her, human life originates in nothingness and is only created through permanent effort. From an existentialist perspective, self-realization happens through a free project. But the nothingness from which human life is lifted lurks everywhere all the time; human freedom is constantly in danger, threatened by the prospect of falling into lethargy, into mere existence. This means that every person has an extraordinary responsibility—not only on to themselves but also to others. In this inseparable connection between humanity and the world, social and political life is formed.
Through the phenomenon of the game, Chytilová testifies not only about primary existential ideas but about the state of contemporary society as well. She connects timeless themes with a critical depiction of the current lifestyle of society. In her films, she creates a specific form of game that always leads to the destruction of human existence and also to the destruction of the world.
Chytilová exposes characters whose fruitless living gradually comes out in the form of a game that soon starts expressing its grotesque and tragic nature. The aimlessness of the game becomes more and more visible. The absence of meaning has become the central problem of human existence in a world that the director constantly engages with. The game has become a way of formulating the idea that real nothingness does not lie in time, in old age or in death, but in an absurd and pointless existence.
1. Klimeš, Ivan: “Hra”. In.: Filmový sborník historický 4, 4/1993, p 59.
2. Cieslar, Jiří: Concettino ohlédnutí (portréty, kritiky a eseje 1975-1995). Národní filmový archiv, Prague, 1996, p 178.
4. Chytilová, Věra: “Sedmikrásky”. In Film a doba 12, 4/1996, p 169.