Kundera’s Owners of the Keys and Chyytilová’s Daisies
Perhaps this would be to his chagrin, but Milan Kundera’s play could be described as neatly dialectical, in the way that he develops meaning out of the play of opposites. Kundera builds this tension right from the opening scenes juxtaposing states of dress and undress to the more general contrast between the insipid comedy of manners going on in the next room and the high stakes undercover resistance story that John and Vera are immersed in. This reaches its tragicomic peak when Helen demands her autonomy, effectively sealing her death. The climax of the play occurs when John is faced with a choice that sets in opposition his personal and political commitments. This opposite, however, has no immediate synthesis: since both choices end in unacceptable death, it is an undecideable, to borrow Derrida’s term. Kundera wants to set up an opposition between two ways of attempting to find a solution. On one side is the mathematical logic of the resistance fighters: Vera calculates the predictable consequence of each decision and works out the one that would result in the least amount of loss. What is abominable is that it sacrifices John’s in-laws. On the other side, John holds onto a logic of honour: if his family is to die, so must he. This is equally abominable since it only adds more corpses to the pile. Though he tries to find an intermediate solution, John eventually capitulates to Vera, demonstrating that there is no way to transcend this situation.
Věra Chyytilová’s Daisies likewise plays with polar contrasts. After deciding that the world is no good, Marie and Marie decide to be bad. Like the characters in Lars von Trier’s The Idiots, Marie and Marie shamelessly disregard social conventions as they get drunk on wine they pilfer from other people’s tables and eclipse performers by making a spectacle of themselves. Throughout their nihilistic escapade they are irresistibly charming, which makes the codes of behaviour they step outside appear as tedious and pointless constraints. Likewise, the men who buy them dinner and make elaborate declarations of love to them over the phone seem dull, repressed and pathetic in contrast to the girls’ flamboyant and free femininity. Their society does not tolerate such behaviour, though, and humourless authority figures respond by escorting them out of restaurants, but a darker sign of what kind of consequences could be in store for them is hinted at in a flash-forward scene in which the girls are dunked in water like witches. The threat of death disciplines the Maries but their effort to be good by cleaning up the mess they’ve made after staging a food fight in a banquet hall is tokenistic and absurd. As they slop all the food together on a single plate, put unmatched pieces of broken plates together to form a whole, they adapt to good behaviour by parodying it.