Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Death Laid an Egg (1968)


La morte ha fatto L'uovo

Italian writer/director Giulio Questi deserves a more prominent position in the history of popular Italian cinema. One of the most challenging things for a filmmaker working within the restricted conventions of fashionable cycles or genres is to make the familiar seem unfamiliar. His films achieve this through an experimental attitude to form, an attitude that sometimes borders on the avant-garde, and a political perspective that is unashamedly leftist. Questi’s work has the sensibility of 1960’s Italian art cinema, but possess a presentation that took advantage of the prevailing popular trends of the day. It means of course that audiences are caught completely unaware, as will anybody will who approaches Django Kill, If You Live…Shoot! (1967) expecting a regular spaghetti western. The debate within Questi’s cinema however lies with trying to judge the extent of Franco Arcali’s contribution. Arcali was both writer and editor on a number of Questi’s films, and it is in the editing strategy that the films show their most experimental side. Furthermore there is much evidence in his filmography to suggest his political sympathies were also strongly leftist. Either way the two men clearly complimented one another on Django Kill, and they took this collaboration on to the peculiar and surreal giallo Death Laid an Egg.

It is important to remember that Death Laid an Egg emerged at a time when the giallo cycle had yet to fully spread its wings and travel the continent. Dario Argento’s international box office successes were a couple of years away, and the period from 1964-1969 saw a number of films emerge that lacked a true identity, only to be included as part of the giallo cycle retrospectively. In this sense Death Laid an Egg can be seen as something of a proto-gialli. It’s certainly possessed of a mystery, it has a complex and intriguing love triangle, it also has a whodunit element, though this is perfunctory at best. However it lacks the key narrative device that drives a giallo plot forward; detection. There is no piecing together of clues in Questi and Arcali’s screenplay, and very few red herrings to provide suspense. It is a curiously passionless and lifeless endeavour. It quickly becomes apparent though that the few gialli conventions it does utilise are merely evoked to satisfy a certain commercial expectation. What the film is truly concerned with is the relationship between the conglomerate, its subsidiaries, and the work force. The love triangle between Anna (Gina Lollobrigida), Marco (Jean-Louis Trintignant), and Gabrielle (Ewa Aulin), with the shady prescence of Mondaini (Jean Sobieski) lurking in the background is played out against the backdrop of a high tech chicken farm.

The factory is the real villain of the film - the modern technology implemented by the matriarchal owner Anna has eliminated the need for human workers. The process has become entirely automated and the unemployed workers seethe with undisguised hate and resentment. The factory is coveted by Gabrielle and Mondaini and their thirst for the wealth it is about to generate motivates murder and duplicity. It is also the site for a series of monstrous and grotesque experiments, the culmination of which is the birth of a mutated headless chicken. Its destruction the only sensible thing that the confused and emasculated Marco does. His capitalist overlords however are less than happy with this, their eyes shine with greed at the prospect of a poultry product which will have no waste attached to it. If this isn’t enough the factory even claims the life of a harmless pet dog! The critique of capitalism and aggressive mechanised production techniques emerges as the most salient theme of the film. It feeds into a general sensibility of inhumanity which is reflected in the cynical and selfish behaviour of the main characters.

Marco is the most mixed up of the bunch, but he emerges as an unlikely hero. The screenplay deceives us initially, with an opening sequence that suggests the murder of a prostitute. This is returned too a number of times, and when coupled with Trintignant’s thoroughly dislikeable performance, we surely have our murderer. But the screenplay later reveals that Marco is merely exercising a bizarre murder fetish. This is the only successful red herring in the movie. Nevertheless like everyone attached to the monstrous chicken farm Marco’s fate is a justifiably grisly one. The themes of greed, adultery, and betrayal, are brought to life with an odd surrealism. The sequence in which Gabriella recollects the car crash that took the life of her parents an exemplar of both the dreamlike tone and Arcali’s editing. The constant motorway backdrops, the cacophony of automobiles, and the lifeless and tacky hotels and boardrooms, paints an extremely depressing picture of modernity. Even the whores look faded and worn-out. The storytelling is a chaotic mess, very little of the film makes sense, and the head splitting music of Bruno Maderna offers agony rather than relief. Nevertheless amid the disorder, and amid the deceptive use of genre convention, the socialistic credentials of the filmmakers still shine through.

© Shaun Anderson 2012


  1. I was similarly underwhelmed by 'Egg', Shaun. I know some rate its (presumably) Godard-inspired formal experimentation, and I assume the score is intended to simulate the aural experience of the battery hen (akin to the slaughterhouse cacophony of 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre'), but it all left me rather cold.

    That early strain of 'arthouse' proto-giallo (?) are somewhat interesting, I guess: 'Death Laid an Egg', the Tinto Brass film 'Deadly Sweet' and, I suppose, Luigi Bazzoni's earlier 'La Donna Del lago'. Personally, I prefer Lenzi's early gialli from roughly the same period (and Romolo Guerrieri's 'The Sweet Body of Deborah'), which really do have a feeling of the 'yellow fever' about them...

  2. I found the formal experimentation in DJANGO KILL to be far more effective, in DEATH LAID AN EGG it was more irritating than exciting. Yes I can see what they were doing with the score, but it was just awful!

    The other films you mention I have yet to have the pleasure of. Although I do have a copy of the soundtrack to THE SWEET BODY OF DEBORAH. I don't think it would take a great deal to be more entertaining than DEATH LAID AN EGG to be honest...Thanks for stopping by!


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