Essay by Peter Hames Vera Chytilová’s Ceiling

Peter Hames

Although the name of Vera Chytilová occasionally appears in articles on feminist cinema, or as a footnote to examinations of Jacques Rivette, the majority of her films remain unavailable outside the Czech Republic. When that situation changes, she will be seen as one of the most radically innovative filmmakers of the 1960s. While the challenging form of films such as Daisies and The Fruit of Paradise provokes strong reactions wherever they are shown, it is important to consider her work in a Czechoslovak context. The reputation of these later films has deflected attention from her earlier work and position as one of the key directors of the New Wave.

Chytilová originally studied philosophy and architecture, and moved into film after varied experiences as a draughtswoman, photographic retoucher and model. She got a job as a script girl and, despite the studio’s failure to recommend her, gained a place at FAMU, where she studied direction under Otakar Vávra. In an arrangement similar to that adopted for Forman’s Competition, her graduation film, Ceiling, and a second short, A Bagful of Fleas, were released together as U stropu je pytel blech (There’s a Bagful of Fleas at the Ceiling, 1962). Its release coincided with that of Uher’s Sunshine in a Net, and placed it at the forefront of the new developments.

Like Forman and others, Chytilová was strongly influenced by the fashion for cinéma-vérité, which was particularly evident in A Bagful of Fleas. Although a “staged” film, it uses non-professional actors and improvisation to give the effect of authenticity. It focused on a situation similar to that in Forman’s Loves of a Blonde; the cotton mills of Náchod where the number of young women outnumber the eligible men by five to one. The heroine is severely criticised by the Works Committee after missing work to be with her boyfriend. Unflattering portraits of the factory officials led to the film’s delayed release and to official complaints.

However, it is the earlier graduation film, Ceiling, that points to the innovative character of Chytilová’s later work. Its subject was conceived within the prevailing restraints of Socialist Realism. In the original script, a former medical student becomes a fashion model and acquires an affluent lover. Disgusted by her experiences, she finally boards a train and meets some simple country people. Renewed by this encounter, she returns to the study of medicine. As Škvorecký has pointed out, this exemplified the then fashionable “return to the people for cathartic purposes” (1)

As completed, the film is subtler, although maintaining elements of the original script. Chytilová did not forget her own experiences as a model, or her plans to provide a critical examination of the fashion world. The boredom of the model’s life is repeatedly emphasised and seen from a feminist standpoint. Early in the film, there is a sequence in which she is shown posing for fashion photographs in, successively, an imaginary tennis match, a scene staged in front of an Air India airliner, and another in front of an automatic dredger. The sessions are linked in a stylised and elliptical manner as the backs of two male heads move from one episode to the next as though watching play in a non-existent tennis match. The fact that these images of women for women are the creation of men is emphasised. A male narrator observes: “He photographed me only once – thank heavens.” Even her subjective thoughts are spoken by a man.

Later scenes reinforce this totally negative view, as they show the ritual application of make-up and the routine of acting as a living dummy for the dressmaker. Although much of the material is shot in cinéma-vérité style, the snippets of conversation overheard from fellow models are highly selective. Their outlook on life is superficial and materialistic, and they are shown as entirely preoccupied with boyfriends, sexual liaisons, foreign clothes and cars. Marta’s awareness of this superficiality is pointed up by an unexpected encounter with former student friends, re-establishing her links with an “innocent” past. In contrast to this conventional working out of the film’s story is its conclusion, an abstract sequence recalling Jeanne Moreau’s walk in La Notte (1961) and the end of L’Eclisse (The Eclipse, 1962). It consists of a montage of distinct images, which together make up a poetic statement, losing narrative content at an early stage.

It is this sequence that calls into question the obvious social criticism that Chytilová has been making. At one level there are typical images of night (a couple; a man in a car who tries to pick up Marta; a cat). On another, there is a critique of consumerism, of which she is a part, since her image is used in advertisements. Although dummies in a shop window (with their explicit parallel to her), lampshades, and a neon sign in the form of a rocket are typical products of her society, they are also presented as something strange and alien. Abstract images in which Marta becomes part of the composition – ceiling, trees or stone – suggest nothing beyond their formal properties, unless it is the existence of man as an object among objects.

In fact, it is precisely a sense of alienation that the film conveys, not only from work in a male-dominated industry, but also from society as a whole. Despite a “formal” rebirth (Marta walks through trees towards the horizon), the overall mood is not negated. At the end, Marta meets her peasant family and shares their homemade bread. The film then ends with inconsequential dialogue – “It is raining” “Yes, forever raining” – and concludes with the image of rain on the window and the sound of the train moving over the tracks. It is ambiguous and open-ended.

Besides her initial collaboration with Pavel Jurárek on the script, Chytilová’s team on Ceiling included Jirí Menzel, Juraj Jakubisko, Jan Klusák (music), Jirí Šlitr (music and lyrics) and Jaromír Šofr (photography). Speaking of his experiences while working on the film, Jakubisko said:

She makes a film as if she were buying a hat: a magnificent ceremony, full of elegance and feminine cleverness. And all the while she is suffering. In a little while the hat she bought doesn’t appeal to her anymore, and right there a style of storytelling emerges. (2)

While Chytilová finds that Ceiling no longer accords with her view of the world (3), her formal interests undercut the obvious elements of moralising propaganda. The extensive use of recorded music (Western and Czech), the formal editing of cinéma-vérité material, and an interest in non-naturalistic relations between sound and image all point towards the kind of aesthetic complexity developed in Daisies. Even in her first film, Chytilová broke with easy analysis, the varying levels of presentation encouraging the spectator to become actively involved in the creation of meaning.

Excerpt from: Peter Hames, The Czechoslovak New Wave, 2nd Edition (London: Wallflower Press, 2005), pp.183-185.
(1) Josef Skvorecky, All the Bright Young Men and Women: A Personal History of the Czech Cinema, trans. Michael Schonberg (Toronto: Peter Martin Associates, 1971) p.100.
(2) Antonín J. Liehm, Closely Watched Films: The Czechoslovac Experience (New York: International Arts and Sciences Press, 1974), pp.357-8.
(3) Serge Daney and Bernard Gidel, “Entretien avec V?ra Chytilová”, Cahiers du Cinéma, 193 (September 1967), p.61.

© Peter Hames 2006

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