One of the main figures in the Czech Film Miracle, Vera Chytilová trained as an architect before working as a technical draftsman, a model, a designer and a clapper girl at the Barrandov Studios in Prague, where she served as an assistant to Milos Makovec on Lost Children (1957). She impressed with a string of shorts that included Villa in the Suburbs (1959), Mr K - Green Street (1961), her FAMU diploma film, Ceiling (1961), and A Bag of Fleas (1962), which has been released on the ever-excellent Second Run label.

The former explored the limits of Socialist Realism by focusing on Marta Kanovská, a medical student who abandons her studies to become a fashion model, only to be so disillusioned by the high-life shown to her by a wealthy lover that she hops on a train to reconnect with ordinary people and revive her desire to help them as a doctor. Co-scripted by Pavel Jurárek, this proved to be a crucial stepping stone in the direction of the Czech Film Miracle, as Chytilová's crew included future directors Jirí Menzel and Juraj Jakubisko, while Jaromír Šofr operated the camera.

Employing a cinéma vérité style, the latter set out to achieve a brand of `acted reportage that explored the hopes and fears of the girls attending a factory-run school in the northern town of Nachod, where women outnumbered eligible bachelors by five to one. Among the non-professional cast, Helga Cocková stands out as the rebel who risks losing her job to go on a date. However, the management of the cotton mill took exception to their depiction and Chytilová got her first taste of having a film withheld.

In 1963, however, was permitted to make her feature bow with Something Different (1963), which shares the same disc. This is a bold picture that told parallel stories that revealed much about the female experience in Communist Czechoslovakia. The documentary aspect followed gymnast Eva Bosáková, as she dedicated herself to a rigorous training regime run by trainer Luboš Ogoun, which she finds so tough that retirement is a tempting option. However, she battles on, as does housewife Vera Uzelacová, who wistfully recalls her past as she laments the fact her efforts to make a comfortable home go unappreciated by her chauvinist husband and ponders making a fresh start with someone new.

Having sought to revise the way in which women were depicted on screen, Chytilová followed The World Cafeteria (which formed part of the 1965 anthology Pearls of the Deep) by changing the agenda and turning the `male gaze' back on itself with Daisies (1966), which she made in collaboration with cinematographer husband Jaroslav Kucera and screenwriter-cum-art director, Ester Krumbachová. This critic has written an analysis of this film elsewhere (

This freewheeling avant-garde satire was among most remarkable films produced during the Czech New Wave and the same team made the biting political allegory Fruit of Paradise (1969), an avant-garde allegory that defies easy interpretation and throws up more puzzles and possibilities with each viewing. Designed by Vladimir Labsky and with an imposing musique concrète score by Zdenek Liska, this may be more formally and thematically challenging than Daisies.

A series of tableaux set in the Garden of Eden opens proceedings to the accompaniment of a cantata citing the Book of Genesis. As Adam and Eve watch what seems to be a serpent coiled around the Tree of Knowledge and enjoy the innocent bliss of ignorance, voices chant `tell me the truth' on the soundtrack and an apple falls from the tree to disturb the foliage that appears to represent the perfection of Nature.

The scene shifts to a very different edenic paradise abutting a stone wall. Respectively clad in white and grey, Jitka Novakova and Karel Novak are the new Adam and Eve, while Jan Schmid dresses in red and switches between being a source of temptation and trepidation. Novakova is intrigued by the leather briefcase he carries with him, but she remains loyal to Novak and even climbs the wall to fetch him some fruit. She is perturbed to see him playing with a red beach ball with some pretty girls, but is distracted when a key falls out of Schmid's pocket and she purloins it to break into his room. She finds his desk covered with fruit, nuts, buttons and keys and has to hide behind a curtain when she hears the sound of footsteps. However, she remains alone and uses the key to open the briefcase, inside which she finds some lace and a collection of numbered rubber stamps.

Having branded her thigh with a scarlet number six, Novakova seems to grow in insight and she becomes aware that a serial killer is marking his victims in the same manner she has branded herself. She tries to escape into the woods at dusk, wearing a flowing red scarf, but Schmid pursues her and a tug of war results that culminates in Novakovas dress changing from white to red as Schmid winds the scarf around her. He stands over her and declares that Novakova is a lie because everything is a dream. But, before he can strike, a gunshot rings out and he Novakova finds both a pistol and a rose in the pockets of her jacket.

Visually striking and frequently as perplexing as it is provocative, this remarkable picture has been seen as a treatise on feminism, anti-authoritarian subversion, the power of knowledge and the relationship between love and death. Kucera's use of distorting lenses, editor Miroslav Hájek's dislocatory jump cutting and Krumbachova's costumes all combine to give the imagery a distinctive feel.

But this is not a work for the faint-hearted or for those not prepared to search for their own meaning. Is there a sly allusion to Mae West in the denouement and what is the significance of the shift to monochrome for the closing shot, as Novakova urges Novak not to ask her about what took place on the other side of the wall, as she is no longer interested in the truth. Who knows?

The film has been accused of obscurantism and cynicism, but it incurred the wrath of the state in the wake of the Prague Spring and Chytilová was forbidden to work in cinema until she was assigned the 1976 medical farce, The Apple Game. Moreover, combative allegories like Prefab Story (1979) were only afforded a limited release and were denied foreign festival exposure. She did much theatre work from the mid-1980s, but apart from The Very Late Afternoon of a Faun (1984), which saw her reunite with Krumbachová, her later work never made the same domestic or international impact, even though it remained fiercely intelligent and darkly humorous.

The likes of Jester and the Queen (1987), Traps (1998) and Flights and Falls (2000) will form part of the UKs first Chytilová retrospective at BFI Southbank, along with Jasmina Blaževic's 2004 documentary profile, The Journey. It is exciting to discover, therefore, that Second Run is about to release several key titles on DVD, including Fruit of Paradise (with Ceiling among the extras), Traps and Something Different (with A Bag of Fleas also on the disc.

For over a decade, Jean-Claude Brisseau has been one of the bad boys of French cinema. Features like Secret Things (2002) and The Exterminating Angels (2006) may have generated headlines for all the wrong reasons, but there was an element of intellectual curiosity behind their blatant eroticism that allowed audiences to give Brisseau the benefit of the doubt. With A L'Aventure (2008), however, his veneer of cerebrality cracked to reveal a softcore superficiality that, for all its arch cinematicism, is never remotely sensual.

Tired of having to justify her sexual needs to her immature boyfriend, Carole Brana dumps him for hypnotist Arnaud Binard, who challenges her to lose her inhibitions in order to attain the transcendence she craves. Taxi driver Etienne Chicot similarly uses psychoanalysis and astrophysics to persuade her to abandon conformity, accept her insignificance in the great scheme of things and simply enjoy herself while she can. Consequently, Brana decides to devote herself to the pursuit of the ultimate orgasm and allows herself to be seduced by Binard's old flame, Lise Bellynck, who, in turn, introduces her to the liberating power of submission with kinky architect's mistress Nadia Chibani.

Brisseau has always insisted that his work delves deeply into such buzz issues as feminist politics, morality, voyeurism and the nature of being. But, in this verbose dissertation on the falsity of love and the transience of pleasure, there's less to the interminable confessional monologues than meets the ear. Wilfrid Sempé's photography is immaculate and the handsome, but thespingly limited cast is achingly sincere. There's even a surprising tenderness to some of the graphic carnality. But it's difficult to take seriously a film that places such emphasis on religious ecstasy and levitation in positing sex as the purest form of existence

The efficacy of a well-composed image proves key to Jan Troell's Everlasting Moments (2008), an elegiac memoir of an ancestor-in-law who defied the conventions of her day to became a pioneering photographer. Bathing the action in natural light and an ethereal sepia that never detracts from the gnawing realism of his scenario, Troell and co-cinematographer Mischa Gavrjusjov succeed in capturing the sights and sounds of working-class Sweden at the turn of the last century, as well as the social, political and cultural forces that helped reshape it.

With husband Mikael Persbrandt is idle during the 1907 Malmo dock strike, Finnish-born Maria Heiskanen is left with little option but to pawn the Contessa camera she had won in a lottery years before. However, kindly Danish photographer Jesper Christensen is so taken by the guileless housewife that he encourages her to begin taking pictures and provides her with the necessary paraphernalia free of charge. Heiskanen surprises herself with her eye for a haunting image. But her drunken, womanising spouse resents her dalliance with things he doesn't understand and it's only while he's fighting the Great War that she begins to profit from her art.

With the restoration of peace, the family relocates to the countryside and, with the adulterous Persbrandt still as unreliable as ever, Heiskanen concentrates on raising her seven offspring. But when he unexpectedly becomes a prosperous carter, the ailing Heiskanen takes the opportunity to revisit Christensen before he departs for a new life with his grandchildren.

Combining heritage sensitivity with cinematic sensuality, this is a work of artisanal and emotional honesty that's as pleasurable as it's poignant. Exhibiting quiet dignity in her drudgery, Heiskanen is simply superb as the foreigner whose ability to see what others overlook enables her to endure her hardships and disappointments. She's ably supported by the boorish Persbrandt and the solicitous Christensen. But the key to her performance is Troell's direction, which is as distinguished as the meticulous production design and the glorious imagery.

A very different picture of Sweden emerges in Gustav Wiklund's Exposed (1971), which was banned in 36 countries. Christina Lindberg stars as an innocent who falls victim, while her parents are away on holiday, to older lech Heinz Hopf, who has taken photographs of her posing naked on his bed and plans to blackmail her into some kinky bondage sessions or he'll show them to her naive boyfriend, Björn Adelly. However, Lindberg has clearly given sex a lot of thought and she fantasises throughout the story about cavorting in the woods with Janne Carlsson (and then being chased to her doom by his jealous lover, Birgitta Molin) and then being forced to explore her lesbian side at an orgy in Hopf's flat.

Although it's not always easy to distinguish between fact and fiction, Lindberg seems to exact terrible revenge on Hopf during an S&M encounter. But the nature of the relationships here is crystal clear compared to the shenanigans going on in Gustav Wiklund's Wide Open (1975). The central figure is Kent-Arne Dahlgren, a cab driver who takes drunken father Åke Fridell home after bumping into him at the racetrack, only for the old man to assault his girlfriend, Solveig Andersson. She bears no grudges, however, and they head off to a trippy party held to celebrate the completion of an arty films headlining her sister, Gunilla Larsson.

With Wiklund trying to distract us with a subplot involving drugs being smuggled into Sweden in a fur coat, the chaotic storyline veers off to follow Larsson's attempt to make it as a nude model alongside Christina Lindberg (although she seems more intent on making lover Leif Ahrle jealous by seducing Dahlgren). But, again, the film is fascinating for its attempt (albeit a deeply flawed one) to follow in the footsteps of Vilgot Sjöman's I Am Curious - Yellow (1967) and combine the sensual and the cerebral.

Sjöman was no stranger to controversy before the release of this notorious study of 1960s attitudes. He had discussed homosexuality, bestiality and rape in 491 (1964) before considering incest in the period drama, My Sister, My Love (1966). However, this curious blend of agit-prop and pseudo-porn became a cause célèbre when it was seized by US Customs and Barney Rosset's Grove Press went all the way to the Supreme Court to secure its release, just as they had done with such novels as DH Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover and Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer (see this week's In Cinema column).

The film went on to earn $15 million and remained the highest-grossing foreign film in the States for the next 25 years. It certainly divided the critics, with the New York Times branding it a `genuinely vile and disgusting Swedish Meatball'. But Sjöman himself preferred to call it `a polemic kaleidoscope... a mixture of reportage, imagination, demagogy...made from the platform of the dissatisfied left'.

The inclusion of such serious figures as Martin Luther King, cabinet minister Olaf Palme and the Russian poet Yevgenii Yevtushenko gave the discussions a certain legitimacy. But in seeking people's opinions on everything from the Church and State to Franco,Vietnam, sex and violence, on-screen interrogator Lena Nyman was so aggressive that few provided coherent, let alone intelligent answers. Indeed, we learn more about her than the mindset of the nation, as she comes to embody radicalism, politico-sexual liberation and the potential for change.

Sjöman shot 400,000 hours of footage in all and he followed Yellow with I Am Curious - Blue (1968), with the titles referring to the colours of the Swedish flag. However, even though it showed a couple fornicating outside the royal palace in Stockholm, the second film was somewhat overshadowed by its predecessor. Yet, they offer illuminating contrasts when seen together, with the former's search for a father figure and the rejection of a male lover finding echo in the latter's pursuit of a maternal influence and Lena's dismissal of her lesbian friend, Sonja (Sonja Lindgren).