Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Death Laid an Egg

Death Laid an Egg
Original title: La morte ha fatto l’uovo
Directed by: Gulio Questi
Italy, 1968
Thriller, 86min

Your probably know that many of the great Italian genre piece directors (and French for that reason, don’t ever forget Jean Luc Godard!) started out as critics for movie magazines. I assume that this is one of the reasons why these guys all have such a great knowledge of film, and also have a delicate feeling for what pieces to cannibalise and utilise in their own works. Themes plots and key elements constantly return with in the adaptations made by Italian genre directors One of these directors is the enigmatic, Guilio Questi, a guy you more than often hear actors and cast who worked with him claim that he’s an intellectual, a thinking man and a guy who tried to avoid genre convention.

After working as a writer for the papers, Questi started making a move into actually working with the stuff he was writing about. His first short movie, Giocare 1957 won him his first and only award, and pretty soon he was co-directing Italian youth gone wild Mondo style movies Le italiene e l’amore (Latin Lovers) 1961, Universo di Notte 1962 (uncredited) Nudi per vivere and Amori pericolosi both 1964. But as this was before the term to define the genre was coined, let’s simply refer to them as documentaries.

In 1967 he broke free from the position as co-director and presented the stunning, violent and rather suggestive Spaghetti Western Se sei vivo spara. The movie was surrounded with controversy due to its sadistic violence and cold-blooded tone. As you may have read here before, the movie soon underwent a series of cuts and was released under a different name as producers tried to reclaim their expenses. Even though the movies have nothing in common except the genre Sergio Corbucci’s Django 1966, had just left an imprint on the audiences, so Questi’s movie was stuck with the Django Kill… If you Live Shoot! title much to his everlong despair.

It’s also here that one can see the commentary that Questi brings to his movies. Se sei vivo spara was in many ways a platform for Questi to exorcise and make a comment on the bloodshed, violence and homoerotic camaraderie he’d seen during his time with the partisans during the Second World War. A time which certainly scarred the young Questi, only in his late teens, and burned in images that he later brought to the to the big screen in shocking sadistic realism.

Even though Se sei vivo spara was Questi’s first feature, it was not the movie he intended to make his debut with. He was actually planning to break through with a comedic horror that he was penning with his friend Franco Arcalli. Producer Alessandro Jacovoni had entered a deal with a Spanish company to co-produce a fistfull of Spaghetti Westerns, which obviously where in demand at the time, but withheld the vital fact that he didn’t actually hold any Spaghetti Western scripts at the time. With the knowledge that Questi was preparing a movie of his own, and that he’d previously co-directed movies like Universo do notte, the one Questi was uncredited for which Jacovoni happened to have produced, Jacovoni put forth the suggestion that he write a script and direct a Spaghetti Western for him. Reluctant to get involved with the Spaghetti Western genre, Questi agreed to the job under the terms that he could use the Western setting as a cloak for the themes he wanted to portray. The rest is Spaghetti Western history, and after the movie was completed Questi and Arcalli got right back to that comedic horror story which would evolve into Death Laid an Egg.

Death Laid an Egg sees the married couple Marco [Jean-Louis Trintignat] and Anna [Gina Lollabrigida] running a chicken farm together with cousin Gabrielle [Swede Ewa Aulin]. The three of them seem to get on splendidly until it’s revealed to the audience that the three of them are all involved romantically with Gabrielle being the spear end of both parts affection. At the same time Marco is presented to a new young, hip marketing manager called Mondaini [Jean Sobieski] who has some revolutionising ideas of how to market the products they manufacture at the chicken farm… Pretty soon it becomes apparent that Mondaini and Gabrielle know each other and have some sinister plan in the works. But at the same time Marco exposes some dark erotic fantasies where his role-play with prostitutes seem to take on mortal culminations. To complicate things further, Marco lusts for Gabrielle and plans to do away with Anna, Anna learns of Marco’s role-play with prozzies and plans to lure him into a trap so that she can confront him and question what the ladies of the night have that she doesn’t. Gabrielle charms the both of them into their individual plans and pretty soon her own sinister plan is exposed just as the move comes to a grinding climax.

It’s an odd film to say the least, at times it’s pretty slow moving and confusing at times, but at the same time intriguing and engaging. Sometimes the exposition not presented is what can make a movie work, and you try to sort the narrative out as it plays on. I’ve always had the impression that Death Laid an Egg played off the novel Celle qui n’était plus (The Woman who Was) by crime writers Boileau-Narcejac (Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, or perhaps the movie adaptation of the above mentioned novel Les diaboliques directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot in 1955. But I’m not so sure that it does anymore, as there really isn’t that much of that source there and the final twist is something completely different.

But now I feel that Questi and Arcalli most likely decided that they wanted to make a thriller story and use certain elements of French genre cinema and blend it with the contemporary movies of Italy. I’m almost positive that the films of Jean-Luc Godard where of importance to Questi, and perhaps more so Arcalli's editing style as the movie really feels more like a warped combo of French Noir, New Wave and Italian thrillers. There’s even a car crash scene that I’m convinced only is in there to nod one’s head at Godard’s Weekend 1967. That said, there’s not really any further discussion about the film being a Gialli or not. The movie is clearly not a Gialli, although like I mentioned above, Questi has brought in elements of the Gialli to the art house sphere. The movie starts with a very gialloesque opening. Gloved hands, tools of the trade presented, woman murdered… but in reality it’s only an illusion, and it helps bring the feeling of the Gialli into the movie before returning to common thriller ground with a healthy dollop of art house for seasoning.

Possibly one of the daftest titles ever Death Laid an Egg, which certainly has put me off the movie for many years, but with the knowledge that the movie was at one stage intended to be a comedic horror and that Questi still had some social commentary that he wanted to put forth, it’s quite apparent that the title refers to the genetically engineered “monster chickens” that appear in one brief scene inside the chicken farm laboratory. Also the key scene that completely divides Marco and Anna’s values and pushes him over the edge, deciding that she’s got to die. The headless, wingless oversized chicks could be seen as a critique of the way we “play god” and interfere with natures ways.

Cinematography by Dario Di Palma is great, and there’s some awesome shots in there, but also these more of the art house edge than the excellent Gialli compositions, The editing also goes hand in hand with the movie’s tone, and Arcalli’s violent style of editing brings to the confusion of the movie in a great way, but the soundtrack to the movie by Bruno Maderna is appalling. Now that’s only my opinion, I have nothing against eclectic scores, but this one is just way over the top and at most times feels like it has nothing to do with the movie at all. But this is probably exactly what Questi was after, as both the narrative, and the plot is also confusing and cryptic throughout the movie, and he’s always been draw to the experimental side of things in his movies.

Rushes of insight come in waves throughout the movie as several scenes that put together in one way, or taking place simultaneously, get different meaning upon the end of the movie. The best example of the cunning deception of Questi and Arcalli is found at the very start of the movie where scenes of Marco murdering a young woman is intercut with the stalking eyes and snooping around of Mondaini. After the scene you think that you have seen Mondaini witness Marco killing someone, but in fact it’s only Marco’s erotic role-playing, which we understand much later in the movie. Mondaini goes to the reception and makes a telephone call which at the time means nothing but adds to the confusion – this early on in the movie we do not know who is the lead character, but we could presume that the man witnessing the “crime” is he, as this is a traditional Gialli trait, and so far that’s what this movie has presented itself as. But later we figure out that the opening montage, which is confusing with the many various events shown, actually is Mondaini already part of Gabrielle’s plan. He’s stalking Marco and the events that he sees is also what he writes in the anonymous letter that Anna finds after their failed party. The letter that makes her set her own plan in motion.

The same goes for the characters, there initial presentations are not the persons that they are at the end of the movie. Marco at first seems like a sexual pervert, but later shifts into a conscious, responsible man with moral values he won’t budge. Mondiani comes off as an all round nice guy who only wants’ to help Marco out the best way he can, he later shifts into a coldblooded maniac who doesn’t think twice about murder to achieve his goals. Sweet innocent Gabrielle, who turns out to be the mastermind behind the sinister plan, and Anna, who early on in the movie jealously toys with the idea of plucking Gabrielle’s perfect body apart bit by bit, ends up dressing up as a hooker as she plans to ensnare Marco in her plan. It’s also a fair guess that this is Questi’s way of showing us that we shouldn’t judge people from their appearances. The moral codes of society really mean nothing until you actually know the persons behind the faces and first impression labels.

See, however eclectic, random and confusing it all looks there’s a certain logic and meaning to the events and characters all along, a logic that only could have come out of a great script.

Death Laid an Egg is an entertaining piece and a great thriller of it’s time, but unfortunately lacks the ferociousness of Se sei vivo spara, the violence and sometimes eroticism of contemporary Gialli, and possibly ventures a bit too far into the art house / experimental field sphere without actually making a decision on which foot to stand. I feel safe when I say that the recognition this movie has is because of it’s odd title, and the fact that it’s always been quite a rare movie to find, and still hasn’t really received a decent DVD release yet. Although it’s definitely a piece you should check out if you still haven’t seen it, and who knows you may enjoy a break from the hardened formula of the Giallo.

Finally a last few words about the great Franco Arcalli who was more than just a great screenwriter as he was also a masterful editor who edited many of the movies we consider milestones of Italian cinema, among them you will fing Louis Malle's segment of Spirits of the Dead 1968, Michelangelo Antoninoni's Zabriskie Point 1970 and Il conformista 1970 (which also starred Jean-Luis Trintignant) directed by Bernardo Bertolucci for whom Arcalli would later write the screenplays and edit The Last Tango 1972, Novecento 1976 and La luna 1979. Arcalli passed away in 1978 as he was working on an early stage script of Sergio Leone’s final masterpiece Once upon a Time in America 1984 at the young age of forty-nine.

Questi sadly only ever directed one more feature film, Arcana 1972, co-written and edited one again by Franco Arcalli. Arcana is even more experimental than the previous movies, and is a really surreal piece reminiscent of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s movies. Arcana was hardly screened domestically and never outside of Italy, and saw Questi say ciao to the movie industry. Not until ten years later would he return to the directors chair and then with a string TV movies. During the last decade Questi has focused on digital short pieces within the experimental sphere, where he cast himself as the leading and only role.


Alex B. said...

I've been ever so curious about DEATH LAID AN EGG.
It sounds like my cup of tea as I hugely enjoy ambitious uneven blends of arthouse and genre cinema, even if they don't quite come off as satisfactory.
I'm a great admirer of Trintigniant,
ever since seeing him on the big screen in IL CONFORMISTA.
Have you seen him in Z?
Also Ewa Aulin ws in D'Amato's best film, DEATH SMILED AT MURDER
I will have to see this film!
That screencap with the overturned burning car is simply screaming WEEKEND! :)

CiNEZiLLA said...

It sure is Weekend. I'm sure that you would enjoy Death Laid an Egg, it's art house chic for sure. if Z is the Costa-Gavras film then yeah I have seen him in that, but like fifteen years ago when I used to work in a video rentals so I don't have much recollection of him.

Alex B. said...

Yeah, it's the Costa-Gavras film.
I saw Z last summer and it's probably the best film of all time... or maybe john Cassavetes' SHADOWS is.
Anyone who brings up Boileau-Narcejac in his reviews should be commended!

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