Essay

The Struggle Against Expectations and Roles for Women in Věra Chytilová’s Something Different

2 months ago
Something Different (1963)

Two women, two completely different lives. That’s how it seems at first sight. However, when one takes a closer look at Věra Chytilová’s Something Different (1963), the lives of protagonists Eva and Věra aren’t that dissimilar. Unfortunately, they live the very same life, one that is dominated by men, expectations, and the status quo of Czechoslovakia of the 1960s.

Something Different contains two storylines, which are cut together and juxtaposed through the editing, though they never converge and always remain separate. One part is fictional, the other is documentary. The fictional half centres on Věra, a bored housewife, the documentary on Eva, a gymnast preparing for a tournament.

Expectations

Both women have to deal with the pressure put upon them by dominant men, who expect a very specific role from these women. Věra is supposed to be the perfect housewife. She should take care of her hot-tempered son and prepare food whenever her husband is hungry in order to keep her family happy. The idea of having a happy family clearly was the cornerstone of the Czechoslovakian society back in the 1960s. It apparently was what children were taught as early as primary school. Věra’s son, Milda, has made a painting of a house. Next to the house, he wrote “This is a house. People live in this house. They feel great in this house.” Věra also reads out loud a story about a happy family before Milda falls asleep: “And they were happy, and the whole family was happy, and they all lived happily ever after.”

Eva has won several contests. She is about to end her career as a gymnast, which is why she must win the very last tournament she will ever attend. Thus, the expectations are high and the training is tough. Her trainer (and husband) hurts her by stretching her split legs higher up than she wants to, while another coach forces her to leap the buck. Eva’s performances are never good enough. This way, she will never win the contest. Meanwhile, the national press is interested in her story, which puts even more pressure on her shoulders.

Do both women fulfil their roles and the expectations people in their environment have of them? Apparently not. Věra’s husband criticises the way she brings up Milda and the family is far from happy. Eva doesn’t perform the way she should, according to her coaches. These women do their best, but they seem unable to meet the men’s and society’s expectations.

Something Different

Something Different

Voice not heard

Both Věra and Eva get tired of being pushed. They get exhausted, which they both indicate to the people around them. However, the men who dominate their lives don’t listen to their complaints. “When your work is finished, it’s finished. Mine is never-ending,” Věra says. Meanwhile, her son doesn’t listen to what his mother tells him to do. When she talks to her husband, she doesn’t get any response. He only pays attention to his newspaper, a football match broadcast, and that weird feeling in his arm. Even when she asks him about his work, he doesn’t answer. Věra can’t take it anymore and walks away. But when she’s outside, she doesn’t seem to know where to go. Does she have a place to hide, to escape from her reality? Apparently not. She stays.

Eva too is tired. She is anxious for the exercises her coaches forces her to do, but they don’t care about her feelings. They only get mad on her when Eva indicates she can’t or won’t do a particular jump or something. Eva loses her liveliness, energy, and self-confidence. Her coaches ignore it and continue the training, without showing any empathy. She has no choice, she simply has to perform better and better. And if she doesn’t, well, then her husband will simply slap her in her face. Just like Věra’s, Eva’s voice isn’t heard by anyone.

Stepping out of their role

At one point, Věra and Eva decide to step out of their roles. Věra is sick of trying to take care of her “happy family” and wants to have fun. She starts an affair with a younger man she came across in front of the supermarket. He makes her laugh again, he makes her happy and feel careless. He gives her the attention she is missing at home but this doesn’t last for long. This man doesn’t understand her situation and soon they experience their first fight. However, they keep on seeing each other, but after a couple of dates, Věra sees she has a duty towards her family. She drives home, back to her role and her obligations.

Eva ceases her training. Her husband decries her action, but proposes an afternoon off. However, he decides what to do during her spare time, not Eva herself. Eva acknowledges that is was stupid of her to walk away in the middle of her training session. And so, she returns to a strict workout scheme. And why shouldn’t she, if she even is allowed to choose what she to do during her own day off?

Something Different

Something Different

Reaching Goal

After their time-out, both women return to their safe environment. Věra returns home where her husband confesses that, while Věra was having fun with her boyfriend, he was dating another woman. He thinks it’s better to divorce. Věra, quite unexpectedly, gets hysterical. He can’t do that in her opinion and she throws herself and her son upon him. In the last scene of Věra’s part of the film, the three walk in a forest, like nothing ever happened. As if this family has always been a happy family and will live happily ever after.

Eva performs excellently during the tournament. During the execution of her exercises, she looks happy. Freeze frames emphasise the jump that was once so difficult for her. She dances her choreography so freely, as if her dance performances were never criticised. Eva wins the contest and takes the medal as a proud and strong woman.

In the end, both women reach their personal goal. Věra succeeded in keeping her happy family together, while Eva won her very last tournament. However, you might ask in how far these goals were really their own. Is Věra really happy being a housewife and mother or does she want it because the Czechoslovakian society expects that from her? Does Eva really want to be a gymnast coach after her career as a successful gymnast? Or does she train young girls now simply because there is no other option for her? Do these women feel happy? Or do they only keep up appearances?

Maintaining the Status Quo?

As a matter of fact, have they made any real changes at all, or do they merely maintain a status quo? Věra returns to the traditional family life she tried to escape, while Eva returns to the gym she seemed to be done with before the final scene.

Nothing seems to have really changed for Věra, except that she learned that it wasn’t easier to find happiness and fulfilment outside of her marriage, and that an affair is not the answer to her problems inside that marriage. But now that she’s returned to that marriage and begged (and convinced) her husband to stay after he mentions divorce, what has changed for her? The last images we see of the family are of a happy family on holiday together, but the music in the scene suggests otherwise and the whole scene has an air of resignation to it. Věra is still stuck in her unhappy marriage, but prefers that to a life without it.

Eva appears to escape the status quo, or at least much more so than Věra. In the end, she still lives her life in the gym, but as a trainer she’ll no longer be the one tormented by her trainer and husband to push herself harder for her sport. Instead, she’ll be doing that to others. It appears, however, that her approach will be kinder, more open, and less constraining than her husband’s – the smile on her trainee’s face in the last shot of the film suggests this at least.

Something Different

Something Different

Music

The differences between the two protagonists are highlighted by the kinds of music that accompany them. Eva’s recurring theme of sorts is an upbeat piano-led jazz tune. For the first training we see her do, she plays a tape with rock & roll music. Later she trains to heavy classical music, that is also the music to which she ultimately performs her dance at the tournament. The classical music plays during her most successful performance and training sessions, to underscore the role demanded of her during these scenes by her husband and her profession. When the rock & roll song played, she was having fun and free of her trainer/husband’s demands, while the jazz tune often is heard when she is either mentally free from his constraints or just plain having fun as a gymnast.

Meanwhile, Věra is always accompanied by what sounds like the same song, although variations of it occur throughout. There’s a hint of jazz in the wordless vocalising of the singer, but it’s much more of an old-fashioned pop song than Eva’s theme. Fitting, since Věra’s life is more traditional and old-fashioned in a sense.

The first time we hear it, is during a montage of her daily housewife routine, when she still seems somewhat content with that. It’s no coincidence that the song disappears from the soundtrack of the film when the loud noise, that Věra’s son makes, interrupts it. The song returns when she leaves the house and her marriage in frustration one night, and continues when she meets the man with whom she’ll have an affair. Afterwards, it mostly reoccurs during the scenes of the affair. Until the song makes its final appearance at the scene of the supposedly happy reunited family. However, during the final moments, the song starts skipping as the record gets stuck, suggesting this happy family life is a lie since the record protests being used as a signifier for happiness here. Also, the pretence of a happy family literally is a broken record here – as if to say that Věra and her husband have tried to pretend to be happy in this marriage and failed before, and that this pattern will repeat itself, never progressing to a satisfying end.

Juxtapositions

The music is not the only way with which Eva and Věra are juxtaposed. There are several times in which the editing between their two lives directly contrasts them and the way they live. The opening scene of Eva performing a gymnastic routine turns out to be a television broadcast which Věra, her family, and guests are watching. That same night, Věra tells her son a bedtime story by starting with “Once upon a time there was a princess who was very proud” – she hasn’t finished her sentence yet or the film is cut to an image of Eva showering, suggesting she’s the proud princess Věra is thinking of. As if she saw her on television and now longs for her perceived pride and independence. This illusion doesn’t last long in the film, as the next scene undercuts these notions by Eva’s trainer telling her that her injury doesn’t hurt and not listening to her complaint that it does, in fact, hurt.

Later in the film, Eva ponders if one of the harder moves of her routine is even physically possible for her to do, by saying to her trainer: “Is it even possible for me to do this?” Again a quick cut on the sentence to the other woman, this time to Věra ‘s affair hitting a first rough spot. They may be living different lives, but sometimes their minds almost seem to link up through the editing.

Finally, these editing juxtapositions are used to make a joke. When during the last scene of Věra ‘s affair, she takes her lover into an empty freight train and convinces him to follow her with the line “no one can see us there,” there’s a quick cut to camera’s in close-up, covering the gymnast event that Eva has been working towards the whole film. While Věra hides her passion, it’s Eva’s time to shine with her passion in life.

The editing is another layer through which Chytilová contrasts and compares the lives, desires, expectations, disappointments, and expected roles of these two different women in 1960s Czech society. Although one seems much more free and able to pursue her own goals, while the other is living the life expected by society, both their lives are still heavily defined by dominant men and their expectations of them. Ultimately, Věra decides to reconcile herself with her expected life, preferring it to the danger and uncertainty of freedom from that expected, ‘normal’ life, while Eva seems to somewhat break free from the cycle that dominated her life, becoming a coach in her own right. But at home she’ll still be married to the same man that dominated her in the gym. Above all, Chytilová highlights the struggle against the bonds of men and society that constrain these women and the difficulties of fighting against these bonds in one way or another. It’s this struggle that matters, whether one breaks the bonds or if the outcome means deciding to embrace the bonds to remain sane and safe.

✏️ Lisa van der Waal & Kaj van Zoelen

'The Struggle Against Expectations and Roles for Women in Věra Chytilová’s Something Different' was written by and posted on Monday January 14, 2019
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