Following on from what is by far her best-known film, Sedmikrásky (Daisies, 1966), Věra Chytilová embarked on a new project, the production of which would be shaped by internal and external forces alike: on the one hand, by the director’s commitment to a kind of restless self-abnegation, the seeking out of a new style for each successive work; on the other, by the brief flowering and much longer withering of the Prague Spring, which ushered in the prolonged “normalisation” of Czechoslovakian society, and which would also see Chytilova barred from making another film until 1975.
At first blush, Ovoce stromů rajských jíme (Fruit of Paradise, 1969) offers up a new take on the story of Adam and Eve, which also doubles as an allegory for the invasion of Prague by Soviet forces under the Warsaw Pact in August 1968 – the very month in which filming began. More in line with the unnamed dystopian spaces that gesture towards historical tragedy in Juraj Jakubisko’s Vtáckovia, siroty a blázni (Birds, Orphans and Fools, 1969) than with Jaromil Jireš’ direct criticism of party politics in Žert (The Joke, 1968), Fruit of Paradise avoids forthright political comment and so comes across as an unpredictable and capacious work of art.
Even as the film’s allegorical scaffolding was shaped explicitly by the historical events taking place during the shoot – the sounds of incoming planes were heard by Chytilova from the shooting location north of Prague – it is clear from the beginning that it has much more to offer than a simple transposition of the Genesis urtext. On the one hand, that myth might be neatly mapped on to the invasion, with the Soviet snake invading prelapsarian Prague and forcing its inhabitants into exile. But the film also offers the heretical valorisation of the serpent’s craftiness: Fruit of Paradise is also about the necessity of eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, which opens one’s eyes and allows for what Chytilova called “an explicit rejection of accepting the experienced truth” as a puppet state of the Soviet Union.1
The first sequence – an oneiric double-exposure montage of multicoloured flowers and foliage – conveys the plenitude of Eden before the Fall, as the light of these images washes over the first naked humans, and man, woman and nature are all as one. This is accompanied by an ominous oratorio reciting chapter and verse, before an insert of an apple falls from the sky and we are introduced to our modern Adam and Eve as they take the first bite. Josef (Karel Novák) and Eva (Jitka Nováková) are on vacation at a health resort, where their marriage is triangulated by the mysterious Robert (Jan Schmid), a figure representing Satan and who is also likely a serial murderer of blonde women. Her curiosity newly piqued, Eva follows the trail of the crime. Josef flirts openly with other women and belittles Eva; Robert by turns flirts with and tries to kill Eva, and alternately fights with and buddies up to Josef.
These shifting dynamics are executed with the flat, naïf acting style adopted by the Studio Ypsilon theatre troupe,2 which involves characters in deceptively “regressive” actions: Eva crawls around the floor in Robert’s quarters looking for clues, and bangs convulsively on a set of drums; the denizens of the health resort play excitedly on the sand dunes with an orange balloon; Robert makes exaggerated, villainous gestures, and his fights with Josef are emptied of any serious tension. Such performances also divert our attention from traditional concerns with plot and character: just as Eva becomes more deeply involved with Robert and the drama escalates, the film shows more interest in the textures of fabric, water, soil and plants, and demonstrably revels in the affordances of Eastmancolor, with vivid symbolic reds thrown into sharp relief against the beige surrounds.
While there were certainly a number of important continuities in this project – the ongoing relationship with both screenwriter and costume designer Ester Krumbachová and cinematographer Jaroslav Kučera, Chytilová’s husband – Fruit of Paradise also marked an intentional break with the director’s career up to that point. Just as Daisies had already signalled Chytilová’s rejection of her debut feature, O něčem jiném (Something Different, 1963), so in turn would Fruit of Paradise become “something different” to its predecessor, its varied arsenal of techniques – wide-angled claustrophobia, bodies wildly vibrating in motion, a theatrical flattening of space, the impulsive responses of Zdeněk Liška’s score to the images – at once more radical and more sinister than anything she had conceived. It was a shift in tone that would notably shock its first viewers at the 1970 edition of Cannes. Yet this shock is precisely what the director had hoped for in making the film, refusing to patronise audiences by continuing to work with familiar ideas and aesthetic strategies and instead allowing them to come to their own conclusions about her work.
This is also reflected in the narrative progression of the film: in her coming to knowledge, the inquisitive and childlike Eva functions as a surrogate for what Chytilová called her “free ideal viewer”,3 who does not simply take her cues from the creator (God or director), but who is critical, who is attentive, and who is even wise to the contingency of the Truth once it appears to have been revealed. Although the allegorical mode may indicate a certain preordination of the narrative, it is deployed here as a narrative frame that encourages active decoding, whereby each scene has the power to modify the last, and in which the expected unfolding of events might be suspended or abandoned unexpectedly. A slew of symbols and objects – Eva stamps herself with the number six, the same mark left on the body of the most recently murdered woman – also suggest themselves to a symptomatic reading of the images.
In its invitation to closer scrutiny and in its sheer vitality, the film exceeds its basis in biblical myth and ultimately escapes the stated intentions of its creator: just as freedom of choice was baked into the creation of Paradise, so too are Chytilová’s viewers encouraged to follow their own interpretations away from any directorial commentary. It is well-documented, for example, that Chytilova resisted the attribution of feminism to her work, with the director overtly denying the specificity of female characters or agency. Although Something Different proposed very explicit parallels between the lives of two distinct women – a housewife played by Věra Uzelacová and the real-life Czech gymnast Eva Bosáková – by way of extensive cross-cutting, Chytilová once stated that “one could very well replace my two heroines with two men.”4
And although Daisies depicts the absolute freedom of two women to move through Prague in a parade of wanton destruction, in a 1968 interview with Cahiers du cinéma, Chytilová refused to see the particularities of the two, responding to Jacques Rivette’s enquiry – “Why two girls?” – with the noncommittal response, “Because things go in pairs.”5
Before all else, Chytilová claims to have devised Fruit of Paradise as a direct response to a key moment of political struggle in her country. But the film nevertheless also endures as a narrative of female emancipation, an active rejection of the myth of original sin, a depiction of the failure of the perceptive regime of men and a pessimistic, pseudo-autobiographical statement on the prohibition of female agency and enjoyment. Beyond this, it represents perhaps the height of experimentation in the Czechoslovak New Wave; and, as such, offers itself as a work that promises to open the eyes of its viewers to new ways of seeing under difficult circumstances.
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Ovoce stromu rajských jíme (Fruit of Paradise, 1970 Czechoslovakia/Belgium 99 mins)
Prod. Co: Elisabeth Films, Filmové studio Barrandov Prod: Pavel Jurácek, Jaroslav Kucera, Bronka Ricquier Dir: Věra Chytilová Scr: Věra Chytilová, Ester Krumbachová Mus: Zdeněk Liška Phot: Jaroslav Kučera Ed: Miroslav Hájek Ass. Dir: Věra Zenísková
Cast: Jitka Noveaková, Karel Novák, Jan Schmid, Eva Gabrielová, Julius Albert
- Věra Chytilová and Tomáš Pilát, Věra Chytilová zblízka (Prague: XYZ, 2010), pp. 181–2, quoted in Lukáš Skupa, “Perfectly Unpredictable: Early Work of Věra Chytilová in the Light of Censorship and Production Reports,” Studies in Eastern European Cinema (May 2018): p. 12. ↩
- See Felicity Gee, “Věra Chytilová’s The Fruit of Paradise (Ovoce stromů rajsýkch jíme, 1969): Radical Aura and the International Avant-Garde,” Studies in Eastern European Cinema (May 2018): p. 6. ↩
- Věra Chytilová, in Michel Delahaye and Jacques Rivette, “Entretien avec Vera Chytilova”, Cahiers du cinéma 198 (February 1968): p. 50. ↩
- Věra Chytilová, in Serge Daney, “Entretien avec Vera Chytilova”, Cahiers du cinéma 193 (September 1967): p. 61. ↩
- Delahaye & Rivette, op. cit., p. 73. ↩