Luce Irigaray argues that “any theory of the subject has always been appropriated by the ‘masculine’.”1 She is largely cynical of a feminist, or even female, transformation of any space, as she views philosophy and all other knowledge systems to be necessarily products of a male subject; the reference point is always male, and everyone else is seen as a product relative to that gaze. A feminist transformation is what her writings aim for, while being aware that such a transformation is almost impossible. When Věra Chytilová made Pytel blech (A Bagful of Fleas, 1962), set in a working women’s hostel in communist Czechoslovakia, she cast a very Irigaray-esque cynical gaze at the hypocritical treatment of women within the communist regime.

A Bagful of Fleas is the story of female textile factory workers who live in a hostel, told from the perspective of a new girl, Eva Gálová2. Before the opening titles roll out, we know that there is a space crunch in the hostels that requires the current inhabitants to make space for Eva. The girls are all very young, perhaps in their late teens, and when they see the new girl, some taunting and teasing obviously gets underway (she is called “the stupid new girl”). Eva enters the world of Božka, Miládka, Jana, Alena, Máňa and a host of other girls, and records her first impressions, which function as the film’s narrative. In Chytilová’s vérité style of shooting, the camera’s perspectives are Eva’s as she makes way through a maze of shouting, giggly girls. “They don’t notice me at all,” she says as she goes on to comment on everyone around: when she sees a chubby girl eating, she taunts, “Go on, eat something, you’re thin as a rake”; someone’s curly hair stands out and she wonders, “Do you keep your curlers on at night?”; and then, when she watches women dance with one another, she is left aghast: “A girl dancing with a girl? Goodness me, what’s that all about?”

There are little things in the narrative that form Chytilová’s critique of the Czech Communist government and the way its processes affect the lives of young women. There is obviously a spurning of homosexuality, as is evident from Eva’s comment. Strangely though, as a contrast almost, the women’s hostel goes on to assume a homoerotic environment as the girls shower naked together while another sits in the same bathroom washing her clothes. They giggle, discuss matters and sing along like it’s the most normal thing. While Chytilová explores this very female space, she makes sure the audience realises that it is definitely governed on the lines of patriarchal rules and regulations.

Like most other teenagers, the girls are at a stage of raging hormones and are very appreciative of young boys whistling below their hostel windows. “Don’t look at the boys. It isn’t ladylike,” a matron warns them. The setting of the hostel is typical of teenage dormitories in many ways; there are pillow-fights, talk of sex, French fashion magazines to flip through and an obsession with American popular culture. There is Jana, the troublemaker, who often sneaks out to meet her army-bound boyfriend. There is also Alena, whose cupboard is raided by the girls one night as an act of rebellion against the perceived injustice of the matrons allowing her to stay out late. Alena is part of a singing group, which affords her some privileges over the other girls, who mostly stay indoors and spend their time sewing dresses. Symptomatic of the communist regime, the hostel pushes the girls to join many such groups that practise activities like singing, dramatics, dance and so on. In one of the girls’ description of these groups, Chytilová sums up the philosophy with which the regime approaches all its activities: “It’s voluntary, but attendance is obligatory.”

When Jana is accused of being rude and wild, a disciplinary meeting is held in which everyone calls each other “comrade”. Chytilová points out the hypocrisy in this, because, in spite of such modes of address, a hierarchy obviously exists. In a display of the gross patriarchal set of codes that govern the hostel, a male “Comrade” questions Jana, “Well Jana, do you need money? How do you make ends meet? After all, you don’t earn anything. Where do you get the money for all the fancy clothes?” – thereby accusing her of prostitution while standing amid propagandist posters of workers’ unions. The men whisper among each other, sparing no thought before slandering a girl much younger than themselves. The moralistic matrons ask her, “Is there something missing in your life?”, before very condescendingly allowing her to stay on in the hostel. Even at this early stage of her career, Chytilová’s critique of Czechoslovak socialism was sharp.

When The Guardian’s Kate Connolly asked Chytilová if she is a feminist, she replied saying that she believes in individualism; “If there’s something you don’t like, don’t keep to the rules – break them. I’m an enemy of stupidity and simple-mindedness in both men and women and I have rid my living space of these traits.”3

While Chytilová’s efforts at establishing this sense of individualism finds its most unabashed expression in Sedmikrásky (Daisies, 1966), we see its early signs in A Bagful of Fleas. Her trademark sharp and choppy cuts make their early appearance in the film, as does her use of non-diegetic sound, notable in one scene wherein the camera focuses on window frames in the dark while the audio track fills up with the sound of the girls talking about kissing. While the narrative is still linear, Jaromír Šofr’s camera explores the confined inner spaces of dormitories, classrooms and factories, and then quickly moves out to an open field where the girls exercise in their bid to be perfect communist workers – strong in both body and soul. The camera focuses on their limbs, zooms in on their faces and allows them the individual ownership of their bodies and minds that the communist regime denies them.

A Bagful of Fleas is an important film in the lineage of Chytilová’s unabashed portrayals of female individualism. While none of the women here are like the two Maries of Daisies, we see signs of their inception when Jana suddenly ties her hair up mid-conversation and jumps around the room pretending to be a cowboy. When we see the final dance the girls participate in, we know we are not very far away from witnessing the crazy, unbridled dance of the Maries in the nightclub. A Bagful of Fleas is not just an indicator of things to come, but also an able predecessor.

• • •

Pytel blech (A Bagful of Fleas, 1962 Czechoslovakia 43 mins)

Prod. Co:  Studio Populárne Vedeckých a Naucných Filmu Praha Prod: Stanislav Koláček Dir: Věra Chytilová Scr: Věra Chytilová Phot: Jaromír Šofr Ed: Marie Čulíková

Footnotes:

  1. Luce Irigaray, Speculum of the Other Woman (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985), p. 133
  2. The actors in the film, all of whom were non-professionals, are left uncredited.
  3. Kate Connolly, “Bohemian Rhapsodist,” The Guardian, 10 August 2000, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2000/aug/11/culture.features2

About The Author

Bedatri studied literature and film in New Delhi and New York, and loves to write on food, culture, gender, films from all intersections. While her mind lives in several places simultaneously, her body presently resides in New York City.