One of the fun things about the Tournament of Films (and all pop culture brackets, really) are the strange, incongruous pairings that crop up every now and again. We’ve had our fair share of weird matchups earlier in this very competition, chief among them the first-round tussle between a French art film about a sad donkey and the shambling corpse of AIP’s beach party division. But sometimes, the Bracket Gods smile down upon us and deliver a pairing that makes total sense, similar in key ways and yet different enough so a winner can ultimately emerge. Ingmar Bergman’s Persona and Věra Chytilová’s Daisies are both films about women, specifically how women exist in a harsh world. Bergman turns his lens inward, examining the psychological impact of the roles women are forced to inhabit, while Chytilová takes that same anxiety and weaponizes it, and points it outwards, unleashing a flurry of cinematic dadaism that swallows her film whole.
These two films are marked by their modernist approach to form and mise-en-scène, though clearly coming from opposing sides of the Euro-modernist coin. Bergman, with the help of frequent collaborator/G.O.A.T. cinematographer Sven Nykvist, pare everything down visually: bare walls, quiet rooms, barren landscapes. Thus, the screen belongs to Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullman, all psychic presence and intense monologues, engaging in what Susan Sontag called “violence of the spirit.” Every act becomes magnified, and the sharpness of the sadness follows suit. Persona plays like an oblique psychological thriller, two beings existing in lockstep, then at odds, then merged. After an hour and a half of eroding the psychological boundaries between its two leads, Persona culminates in one of the most iconic freeze-frames of all time: the faces of Ullman and Andersson, bisected and merged into one. It’s a mic drop, the logical culmination of a movie about the mechanics of performance and, in a meta way, the mechanics of cinema itself. It’s the barest special effect used to soul-rattling effect. With that one move, Bergman exploited the full psychic power of the medium.
Now imagine sustaining that concentrated blast formal force, like Chytilová did, over the course of 76 minutes. Chytilová’s approach is just as piercing, but in a much more dynamic and colourful way: the film starts with a barrage of war footage and credits punctuated with gun fire and ending with a food fight in a derelict-looking mansion. Everything is prickly and bright and obtuse in the Daisies-verse, each segment more of a Dadaist provocation than the last. It’s horseplay as a political act, an attempt to out-gorge the gluttons to reflect the toxicity of the elite’s behaviour. There is a gleeful disregard for plotting, structure, characterization, and most other cinematic niceties. Daisies defiantly Charlestons the way of the kitchen sink, only to then kick in the kitchen sink in and splash about in the dishwater. It is a film of disruptions, of jagged edges on politicized insouciance, of indulgence and self-indulgence as a form of rabble-rousing.
So in the spirit of these fourth wall-breaking competitors, I’m going to be getting inside-baseball with this particular matchup. Now, one of the reasons I love running this type of event is that there is no wrong way to crown a winner. If any of my esteemed colleagues wrote a Tournament of Films article arguing that Film A should win over Film B because Film A was shorter, that would be A-OK (assuming, of course, that there was a cogent argument guiding their decision; I’m an editor, not a doormat). That’s an extreme example, but the end result is the same: determining whether a film is “better” than another is ultimately arbitrary. But what this particular exercise does is shed light onto how we think about the qualities of any given film. Both Persona and Daisies are canon films now, both shining examples of mid-century continental modernism. If there was a Mount Rushmore of Film Directors, Bergman would be a safe bet to have his face carved in stone, and Chytilová is arguably one of the finest filmmakers to ever call the Czech Republic home. But despite both films having been released two and a half months apart, and both being highly regarded, their paths to enshrinement have been wildly different. Persona comes with it the Atlantean heft of the Proper Film Canon, of Proper Art Cinema. And along comes Daisies, a film banned in its homeland until the mid-70s by Communist censors, a film with a the strong counter-cultural feminist voice than can only come from a woman making a movie about women in a volatile time. It’s a film with a singular live-wire energy, a film with a couple of Roman candles in the lead roles, a film that turns every minute of its running time into a blaze of glory.
All the close readings and critical rigor on God’s green earth can’t change what is, to me, a core truth about these two movies: Persona feels like work, and Daisies feels like play. If both films feel like psychological puzzles, Persona is the 1000-piece jigsaw preferred by your older aunt that reveals an overcast landscape with a storm brewing on the horizon, while Daisies is one of those bold, angular Color Puzzles they sell at the MoMA that your kid sister is bananas about. Bergman’s work on Persona has stood the test of time, and he is rightly considered one of the great directors, but there is an urgency and a boisterousness to Daisies that puts it over the top. Persona, in a way, represents the old guard, while Daisies points the way to a bold new future.
The winner: Daisies
Persona; directed by Ingmar Bergman; written by Ingmar Bergman; starring Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson; 84 minutes.
Daisies; directed by Věra Chytilová; written by Věra Chytilová, Ester Krumbachová, and Pavel Juráček; starring Jitka Cerhová, Ivana Karbanová, Marie Češková, Jiřina Myšková, and Marcela Březinová; 76 minutes.