Vera Chytilova, a filmmaker often called the first lady of Czech cinema, whose work — subversive, experimental and strongly feminist — was long banned in her homeland, died on March 12 in Prague. She was 85.
Ms. Chytilova died after a long illness, her family told the Czech national news agency, CTK.
The only prominent woman among the Czech New Wave directors —a group of avant-garde auteurs in the 1960s who included Milos Forman and Jiri Menzel — Ms. Chytilova was known for films that were formally rigorous even by the standards of the movement.
Mordant, darkly farcical satires of life in Communist Czechoslovakia, Ms. Chytilova’s movies might employ disjointed, nonlinear narratives; rapid, deliberately dizzying cuts; speeded-up or slowed-down action; and stark shifts between black-and-white and color from one scene to the next.
In a 1978 profile, The New York Times described her as “a director long considered in the first rank of Czechoslovak filmmakers, who once were numbered among the best in the world.”
Ms. Chytilova’s best-known film, “Daisies,” completed in 1966 but banned in Czechoslovakia until the next year, is widely regarded as her masterwork.
That film, hedonist and picaresque, follows two young disaffected Czech women, Marie I and Marie II, through a series of pranks as they flaunt their nubile sexuality, toy with the affections of a string of hapless men and engage in the gleeful, wanton destruction of property.
In a retrospective article about “Daisies” in 2012, The Boston Globe said it embodied “the ethos of the Prague Spring turbocharged.”
In the film’s most emblematic moment, in which female erotic power is reimagined as an orgy of gastronomic sabotage, the Maries ravish a banquetby literally walking over it, their stiletto heels spearing all manner of delicacies as they shimmy down the table.
The scene caused the picture to be denounced on the floor of the Czech Parliament for the amount of food — “the fruit of the work of our toiling farmers” — expended in the making of it.
“Daisies,” which was shown in several Western cities soon after its completion, won the grand prize at the Bergamo Film Festival in Italy. Over the years, Ms. Chytilova’s work has been shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the New York Film Festival.
Her next film, “(We Eat) the Fruits of Paradise,” a dark spin on the Adam and Eve story involving a suspected serial killer, was released in 1970. But with the liberalization of the Prague Spring uprising of 1968 overturned by the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia that year, she was barred from making films for nearly a decade.
Vera Chytilova was born on Feb. 2, 1929, in Ostrava, now in the Czech Republic. After university studies in philosophy and architecture, she held a series of jobs: technical draftsman, photo retoucher, fashion model and, finally, “clapper girl” at the Czech national film studio.
Enthralled by the filmmaking process, she rose to become an assistant director there. She later trained at the film school of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague.
Unlike many prominent Czech filmmakers — Mr. Forman, for instance, who settled in the United States and whose films include “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Amadeus” — Ms. Chytilova chose to remain in Czechoslovakia after 1968.
For one thing, she saw herself as more provocateur than dissident: though disenchanted with its specific manifestations, she retained an essential belief in the socialist cause.
For another, as she often said, she preferred to battle the system from within its confines. (During the 1960s, as she struggled to wrest financing for her films from state officials, Ms. Chytilova was known to have used the threat of jumping out of a window to instant remunerative effect.)
In the mid-1970s, frustrated by her inability to ply her craft — she was then directing TV commercials under a pseudonym — Ms. Chytilova wrote to the Czech president, Gustav Husak, restating her belief in socialism and saying, “I want to work!”
The ban was lifted, though her films remained subject to the same level of government censorship as the work of other Czech artists.
Ms. Chytilova’s next film, “The Apple Game,” the story of sexual escapades in a hospital maternity ward, was completed in 1977. When it opened the next year at a single theater in Prague, The Times reported, “lines formed around the block.”
Her later films include “The Very Late Afternoon of a Faun,” about an aging Lothario; “Tainted Horseplay,” about AIDS; and “Expulsion From Paradise,” about nudists.
If Ms. Chytilova’s work after the fall of Czech Communism in 1989 lacked the bite — and the critical reception — of her earlier pictures, she did not want for subject matter. In one of her best-known post-Communist films, “The Inheritance,” she lampooned the new capitalist fervor sweeping the former East bloc.
Ms. Chytilova’s husband, Jaroslav Kucera, a noted Czech cinematographer who shot many of her films, died in 1991. Survivors include a son, Stepan Kucera, and a daughter, Tereza Kucerova.
As she made clear in a 2004 Czech documentary, “Journey: Portrait of Vera Chytilova,” Ms. Chytilova had no regrets about the manner in which she approached her career.
“I was daring enough to want to do what I wanted,” she said, “even if it was a mistake.”