Foreplays #11: Vera Chytilová’s "Ceiling"

Foreplays #11: Vera Chytilová’s "Ceiling"

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Foreplays is a column that explores under-known brief movies by famend administrators. Vera Chytilová’s Ceiling (1962) is free to observe beneath.

Cinema wasn’t Vera Chytilová’s first vocation. Earlier than enrolling at FAMU (The Movie and TV Faculty of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague), she had studied structure and philosophy, and did numerous jobs. For a time, she labored as a vogue mannequin—an expertise that, undoubtedly, offered inspiration for Strop (“Ceiling”), her commencement brief movie of 1962, directed when she was already in her thirties.

Watching Ceiling, one is instantly reminded of sure scenes from Hollywood’s classical interval that function feminine characters, typically from modest origins, working as fashions. I’m considering of explicit moments in Caught (Max Ophüls, 1949), Pitfall (Andre DeToth, 1948), or Model (Frank Borzage, 1937) that trace at how, beneath the style milieu’s picture of glamor and class, lies an surroundings of harassment, entrapment, and exploitation that needs to be endured by the fashions. Ceiling brings this concept to the forefront and amplifies it, combining Chytilová’s style for formal and narrative experimentation together with her incisive crucial eye.

Marta (Marta Kanovská), the protagonist of Ceiling, is a Czech lady who has dropped her research of drugs to turn into a vogue mannequin. The movie consists of a sequence of scenes tracing a day in her life: an appointment with the hairdresser; a photograph session; her stroll via the buying space; the possibility encounter with an pal that ends in a shared lunch; a fancy dress check; her magnificence routine at house; a vogue parade adopted by a celebration in a nightclub; a home dispute together with her lover; and at last a nocturnal drift throughout the town streets. Utilizing a cautious narrative development that bursts with sudden revelations solely within the closing scenes, Chytilová crafts a poignant portrait of her protagonist’s ennui, favoring a way of immediacy, proximity, and statement over psychological or sociological explanations. 

In Ceiling, Chytilová units out to supply us an insider’s view of the style enterprise. Her digicam lurks within the margins, the backstage, the in-betweens, trespassing the superficial picture offered to prospects. The movie begins with a detailed shot of Marta, showing from behind a curtain. As she walks, turns and poses, the shot is frozen a number of instances, the credit superimposed on her nonetheless picture. Afterwards, the scene to which this shot belongs unfolds: surrounded by the individuals gathered within the stalls and the galleries of a theatre, Marta strides the catwalk in a black outfit. Chytilová inserts close-ups of the viewers, all gazes mounted on the mannequin. Twenty minutes later, this scene is reintroduced. This time, we see the identical motion from totally different views, however Chytilová additionally features a backstage prologue: two minutes wherein, amongst each form of interruption, the women get their make-up prepared, rehearse poses, cowl their hairdos with handkerchiefs, and placed on their costumes, equipment, and jewellery whereas the seamstresses make their final touches to the attire.

In the midst of this backstage scene, a usually Chytilován, anarchic outbreak takes place: a rebellious lady refuses to go on stage with a tulle hat that she deems horrible. On the final minute, this black hat will likely be placed on Marta, who wears it with out complaining, whereas her colleague is forbidden to parade. However, as we will see, that Marta obeys right here doesn’t imply she’s joyful. In Chytilová’s movies, every lady is irked or happy at various things. Every lady has to search out her personal option to cope, resist, flee, or insurgent. Every lady has to craft her personal response, technique, or escape. And there’s no proper choice for all, simply as there is no such thing as a single revolution that matches everybody.


One of many strongest, most bodily sensations we obtain from Ceiling issues the way in which wherein Marta’s physique, gestures, and actions are at all times reclaimed and appropriated by others: spectators in a parade; seamstresses, designers, and photographers within the office; pedestrians and college students; feminine prospects who acknowledge her from ; younger boys and older males who fancy her at events. Marta is a full-time object to be dissected, admired, envied, acknowledged, desired, or dismissed by all these gazes, in virtually each scene of the movie. Within the photoshoot sequence, the place Marta poses for a cameraman in a number of places, Chytilová makes use of the picture of two guys following a tennis match to bridge the pictures occurring in these totally different settings—but in addition to emphasise Marta’s fixed subjection to the general public eye.

The road scene throughout Marta’s break permits the director to start exploring the connection between determine and crowd. Like every other citizen, Marta walks the streets, seems on the store home windows, and buys a present for her lover. However, together with her brilliant and fashionable summer time gown, she stands out within the multitude. Subsequent to her, all passers-by look alike: an vague, gray mass, lined in working-class garments. A couple of unimportant incidents give shade to this scene, which possesses the rhythmical, gag-like high quality beloved of Chytilová. Amidst all the town buzz, the director is aware of the right way to level with precision towards a major look or gesture: when Marta is stopped at a pedestrian cross by her pal, Honza (Jaroslaw Satoranský), the movie quickly cuts to a 3rd character, Joey (Josef Abrhám)—who, even earlier than having been launched to Marta, is already obsessed on her.  

If, on the street, some passers-by flip their heads towards Marta to have a look at her, she doesn’t cross unnoticed within the canteen the place the three characters go to lunch, both. Marta catches the eye of a number of individuals forming a queue; afterwards, a man (performed by director Jiří Menzel) who sells her a voucher seems droolingly at her; sooner or later, an undesirable admirer who appears to have adopted her to the canteen makes an look. And, whereas all this occurs, Chytilová registers Marta’s efforts to cover the truth that she is an intruder on this place (she lets the boys suppose that she’s nonetheless enrolled in medication), and that, these days, she frequents extra refined joints (in a number of pictures, she’s caught trying suspiciously on the foods and drinks).

Regardless of all this, Marta appears to benefit from the firm. Her presence triggers a lot fuss round her, and she or he laughs earnestly in any respect this gentle nonsense. Then, one thing marvelous occurs: as Marta turns into extra relaxed, Chytilová’s digicam aligns together with her gaze and begins wandering across the canteen. Whereas Joey sings and performs “Chlupatý kaktus” on the piano, a preferred jazz tune by the avant-garde artist Emil František Burian, Chytilová presents us a mosaic of the canteen’s multicultural youth. Tied to the passing of time, the consumption of meals, and the development of the music, we’re introduced with a freewheeling catalogue of faces and gestures: girls and boys consuming, speaking, smoking, musing, studying the newspaper. This drift is a veritable breath of contemporary air, a second of reduction the place Marta’s physique stops being the focus.


Ceiling paves the way in which for Chytilová’s exceptional first function, One thing Completely different (1963). In that movie, she depicts the lifetime of two girls (a housewife and an elite gymnast) who, regardless of all their evident variations, really feel equally asphyxiated by their respective routines. In Ceiling, Marta’s battle together with her job shouldn’t be that she is unable to carry out it. The truth is, she’s superb at it: even when placing probably the most synthetic pose, even when her physique contorts to render probably the most prefabricated gesture, she seems weightless, easy, swish. However Marta begins feeling caught within the chains of her repetitive routine. Her job (that will have been, sooner or later, thrilling for her) begins feeling too laborious.

Chytilová is fascinated with such examples of exhaustion. She pays particular consideration to preparatory and in-between moments. She privileges these gestures carried out earlier than the present, and between the images, as a result of they absolutely manifest Marta’s exhaustion, boredom, and sense of meaninglessness: the physique shedding its composure, the eyes wandering round, the heaviness of the toes, the matted hair, and a smile turning right into a yawn. By incorporating all these unglamorous states of the natural physique at work, Chytilová tears up the superficial picture of the mannequin as seen in pictures, promoting graphics, or vogue exhibits.  

Chytilová provides Marta her personal physique again. She releases her from the sequence of predetermined poses ordered by others into an array of actions made at her personal rhythm. Kanovská’s placing photogénie passes from being on the service of promoting a product to turning into an occasion in itself. Whereas Marta’s work calls for that she comes up with quite a lot of gestures that quantity to the identical, mass-produced, frozen impression (as is clearly seen within the picture shoot and vogue parade), Chytilová permits her to turn into an uncontrollable, unpredictable parade of expressions (within the hairdresser, we see how her face goes although a full vary of feelings in a few minutes: ache, anger, tenderness, reduction, laughter, tiredness, satisfaction). That’s how Chytilová counteracts, with out denying, the violence of the style enterprise.  

In Ceiling, Marta’s voice is hardly heard, and this choice is in itself a robust assertion. It’s at all times the others who communicate: giving orders, making judgements, providing remarks. Within the first scene, a feminine voice describes Marta’s garments for the attentive viewers. Later, the hairdresser fusses over Marta’s hair as he laments its ruined state and recommends a brand new hairdo. When Marta poses for a fancy dress check, the opposite ladies chat in a nook, gossiping about her admirer. At house, to evade her loneliness, Marta listens to a kids’s story on the radio whereas she prepares for her magnificence routine.

The director likes to make use of the voice as an virtually extreme layer that not solely accompanies the picture, but in addition provides one thing to it, performing an additional perform. Through the picture shoot, a sarcastic male voice, appearing like a gossipy reader of an inexpensive journal, acidly ridicules all the things: from Marta’s determine (“she’s received varicose veins”) and the garments’s imperfections (“the skirt is hanging on by a thread”) to the stupidity of the entire set-up (as she poses subsequent to some spiritual sculptures and work, the voice wonders: “What is that this? A contest of saintliness?”).  


Ceiling takes its time laying out all its playing cards. Its closing part presents a shift in phrases each of narrative and temper. Throughout three totally different scenes, due to a string of revelations, we come to raised perceive Marta’s state of affairs and private dilemma. Coinciding with the passage from day to nighttime, the plot tightens, the tone turns into extra sinister, the ambiance oneiric and claustrophobic.  

The movie completely exemplifies Chytilová’s curiosity in constructing every scene in line with a selected exploration, commanded by its personal set of rules. The nightclub scene is brilliantly modeled on a gangster film template: characters kind numerous group configurations, and the enhancing connects the dots of the shady offers occurring beneath a floor of sunshine leisure. Initially, Marta sits at a desk, having drinks together with her boyfriend Julián (Julián Chytil) and different guys. However Julián doesn’t care a lot for her and, as quickly as his enterprise associate enters the room, he leaves her. We see the boys speaking whereas, within the background, one other man corrals a defenseless Marta right into a dance. It turns into clear that the 2 companions try to shut a cope with the third man, and Julián will enable him to flirt with Marta for the sake of their enterprise.  

When Marta escapes from the person’s claws, she sits alone on the bar. The Czech hit “Ach, ta láska nebeská” (“Heavenly Love”) performs on the soundtrack and, as she drinks and sulks in a mixture of anger and despair, two photographs are intercut, suggesting a hellish connection: she and Julián flirting; the predatory man kissing one other lady. Honza and Joey seem unexpectedly on the bar. The latter recites some traces from Robertson Jeffers (“Does it matter whether or not you hate your self? Not less than love your eyes that may see, your thoughts that may hear the music, the thunder of wings”) that make Marta even gloomier. The bothersome man approaches her as soon as extra, however she rejects him. Lastly, as soon as the deal is sealed, Julián seems from off-screen and takes her house. This sequence wherein Marta is surrounded and solicited by males—good males, dangerous males, males with idealistic or unscrupulous intentions, it doesn’t matter—is a formidable depiction of a gender siege, worthy of The Large Combo (Joseph H. Lewis, 1955).

Through the cab experience to Julián’s house, Marta initially rebuffs him, however finally ends up surrendering. The lights of the town blink out of focus via the cab’s again window. As Marta and Julián kiss, the lyrics of the music discuss, mockingly, about how “life with out love is aware of no happiness.” The scene in Julián’s house contrasts vividly with the sooner sequence at Marta’s place: whereas her house was humble and messy, embellished with solely a small copy, some flowers in a bottle, and a doll hanging within the nook, Julián’s house is chilly and complicated, full of costly gadgets suggesting that he’s some form of artwork collector or supplier. This scene comes with one other revelation that provides an sudden weight to all the things we’ve seen: Marta has had a being pregnant scare, and whereas she was fortunately contemplating the prospect of motherhood, Julián is relieved that it’s not going to occur. 

On this scene, the place Julián speaks in monologue mode whereas Marta stays silent, we discover one other nice instance of Chytilová’s work with the voice. He lectures Marta about her future, her career, motherhood and marriage. He even rambles (why not?) in regards to the nature of males. “I ought to have been a thinker,” muses this man of conviction. And he goes on and on, just like the voice pouring from Marta’s radio in an earlier scene. However whereas Marta stays unvoiced, she has achieved, by this stage of the story, a full-blown company. Her silence speaks louder than a verbal confrontation. She is now not the frozen picture of a industrial. She’s a pure, fierce, defiant presence. When Julián slaps her within the toilet, Marta leaves. And, alone, she begins wandering the streets.


Marta’s nocturnal stroll is constructed because the reverse of the earlier, diurnal avenue scene. Whereas Ceiling is filled with stylistic eccentricities (false point-of-view pictures, subjective inserts, lack or delay of creating views, sudden overhead angles), this can be probably the most spectacular scene when it comes to its surreal eeriness, accentuated by atonal music. It begins with the digicam gliding throughout a store window the place we see three girls in framed ads. Then it strikes onto Marta strolling the abandoned streets like a zombie, in her excessive heels. The flashing photographs of a pair kissing, a person lighting a cigarette, or some employees with soldering irons, look like veritable ghostly apparitions. A disturbing close-up of Marta gazing into the digicam knocks us out. The store home windows, displaying nude mannequins with lined eyes or kitchen utensils, have an apocalyptic aura at this hour. Lamps and neons blink within the sky. Marta takes an escalator and finally ends up herself in a mirror, her face eaten by darkness. Within the subsequent shot, it’s already daylight. Marta runs anxiously throughout a backyard of lined bushes, stops on the entrance, and contemplates the huge panorama.  


Chytilová needed to combat her complete life towards censorship: the bans and exclusion imposed on her by the Czech authorities. A lot of her movies painting a state of riot towards each form of energy construction or authoritarian situation (whether or not an individual, a company, a routine, or a life-style) that drains the life out of her protagonists. Typically, as within the celebrated Daisies (1966), her characters want a revolution primarily based on whole wreckage and anarchy. However, at different instances, all they want is a small-scale change, a detour, a distinct panorama, or—as within the title of that nice David Bowie music—a brand new profession in a brand new city.  

In a quick epilogue, Marta is seen on a practice, surrounded by humble households with children. We don’t know for sure the place she’s going. However she’s leaving, taking the reins of her life. She’s provided a chunk of do-it-yourself cake and eats it, smiling. Rain begins falling, forming diagonal stripes within the window. And, because the practice advances, we’re stuffed with a panoramic sense of freshness and liberation.

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