In the annals of film history, Giulio Questi's Death Laid an Egg will probably rank as the strangest giallo ever produced, if not a leading example of Cinema Bizarre.
Questi and co-writer/film editor Franco Arcalli stuck with the basic conventions of the giallo format – double-crossing, murder, mayhem, sex, and a finale with a morbid sense of irony – but applied their own stylistic approaches and political subtext (more like ranting) that probably had people walking out of theatres enraged they weren't given a standard giallo thriller.
Even at the film's halfway mark, it's hard to figure out exactly what the hell Death is all about, and yet there's something incredibly dynamic about the filmmakers' methodology in applying a style that's quite unconventional to the genre.
The opening sequence introducing Marco (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is a fractured montage of private details of hotel guests, and includes shots of an old man readying himself for a suicide attempt, and Marco opening up his little briefcase of murder tools before he slashes a prostitute and then calmly returns to finish off the day at the office.
Arcalli's editing is amazingly fluid in the way he compacts events without creating raw jump-cuts; it's a style that's consistent in the film, and while it doesn't enhance slightly discontinuous scenes, it gives Death a fast pace and dynamic rhythm.
There are many superbly constructed sequences, but a highlight has Marco driving his convertible with his cousin-in-law/lover Gabrielle (Ewa Aulin) on the highway, and halfway through their conversation Gabrielle recalls a slice from her childhood.
Questi's dialogue is banal, but the driving sounds and Questi's visual emphasis on moving lines, as with painted dividers and off ramp guides, are shot in extreme close-ups; intercut between the banal conversationalists, the rippling images of fast-moving lines and textures implant a sense of dangerous speed before Arcalli intercuts flash edits of an inflammatory car crash from the past, thereby providing a subliminal lead-up to the memory.
Questi went against standard scene construction, and with Arcalli's skill, both created scenes that are sometimes disorienting but clever in the way the actor's bodies sometimes become abstract, faceless creatures. This is particularly evident in the lone bedroom scene between Marco and his wife Anna (Gina Lollobrigida), in which the unhappy couple are reduced to a seated male torso (seen from the backside), and a headless female torso resting in bed like a silky fleshy sculpture.
Dario Di Palma's lush cinematography is simply stunning, with his soft-focus compositions of objects and people resembling fashion magazine portraiture. No shot is vulgar or erotic; the women are presented in nuanced portraits, capturing quivering lips, a staid contemplative face, or wandering thoughts, and there's no gratuitous nudity; even the prostitutes Marco subjects to his dark fantasies are seen briefly, minimizing the sleaze factor often inherent to the giallo.
In addition to perfectly composed images, Questi goes against popular directorial approaches and flips back to Carl Dreyer's use of close-ups; there are wide, tracking, and long shots in Death, but when the camera is trained on actors, in most cases they're covered only in very broad close-ups, often taken with blurry interlaced textures (branches, railings, etc.) in front and behind subjects.
The performances are very subdued, and the characters are generally cold and unsympathetic (except maybe the doomed chickens), so one wonders if Questi used close-ups to add some hint of humanity to the characters, or emphasize their coldness and indifference as members of the capitalist machinery that's taken free-range fowl and engineered the lowly chicken into a lump of fast-growing meat.
Questi isn't subtle in using Marco as an emerging rebel among immoral capitalists playing God with Nature, but whether it's the political subtext or exchanges between his giallo archetypes, the dialogue is excessively cryptic and magnificently awful – and it's a core highlight of Death.
The English translations of Dario Argento's scripts often reveal the functional nature of his verse – getting characters to drop clues, red herrings, and establish their relationships before the next big kill – and his weakness as a dialogue writer, whereas Questi has characters positing moral and life issues, but clumsily, as though Questi wants his characters to sound dopey because he has nothing but contempt for them, and having to spend time on genre archetypes when all he wants to do is yell ‘Capitalism is immoral!'
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Questi and Arcalli do share a sense of humour, and it's suggested the mutant chickens weren't born because of the egghead's research, but perhaps through a combination of Marco's clumsy lab intrusion one night, and the grinding of a pooch in the feed processor. (And with Marco's demise in the final reel, we also wonder what his pureed DNA will have on the next batch of eggs, too.)
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The film's colour scheme of soft, pastel shades radically minimize the glossy garish primary colours typical of the era, so Death looks surprisingly contemporary. Neither the clothes nor furniture is outrageously voguish, and Gabrielle's attire often looks retro-chic, particularly her blue and white wardrobe, her complimentary hairstyle, and the blue hair ribbons in the goofy 'room of truth' sequence.
The sets are equally moderne, including the hotel where Marco enacts his violent sexual fantasies (the molded concrete and cold white walls in the suite hallways resemble a corporate headquarters), and the shiny new chicken hatchery where a chemist is developing a mutant strain of wingless, headless, small-boned chickens to meet the cost demands of the chicken industry.
For the characters, the hatchery is just another exotic backdrop where deceit and murder occur, but in Questi's hands, he uses Marco as a man whose conscience evokes revulsion for the whole scheme to produce a bird with a higher meat content, regardless of the moral consequences. This sets up a conflict between himself and his wife, their resident chicken egghead (poultry biologist), and the poultry producers association who's trying to find new ways to integrate the chicken into pop culture as a means of increasing sales and avoid a financial slide due to consumer dissatisfaction with the once mighty bird.
The last key component in Questi's wacky film is Bruno Maderna's psychotic avant-garde score that refuses to be conventional. The sparse themes often infer a kind of character disconnection; lovers, couples, murderers and corporations all suffer from an inability to connect with their companions, interpersonal or on a consumer level.
Maderna also adds his own surreal tone to the film by writing a piece Marco and Anna play to the chickens in their hatchery - a samba piece, over which scat Brazilian vocals shout above a funky guitar. It's hard to tell whether the source music's actually supposed to enliven the birds, increase productivity, or improve the odds of mutant DNA overcoming generations of common breeding.
As of this writing, Death Laid an Egg has appeared on a Region 2 NTSC disc with optional English and Italian dub tracks, but has yet to be given a widely released special edition, which is a tragedy of sorts because aside from the film's bizarro elements that make it such a guilty pleasure, on a technical level, Death is also a fine example of modernistic filmmaking; the editing that probably seemed jarring and pretentious in 1968 is fresh and kinetic forty years later, and some of Questi's scene construction – like the aforementioned bedroom scene – was far ahead of its time.
Questi and Arcalli's next collaboration was the rarely-seen Arcana (1972), and while Questi's output as writer and director remained sparse, Arcalli stayed active, cutting many features, including Bernardo Bertolucci's seventies films, from The Conformist (1970) to 1900 (1976).
Co-star Ewa Aulin would earn a bit of immortality playing the leads Tinto Brass' Deadly Sweet / Col cuore in gola (1967) and the cult film Candy (1968) before appearing in a few more sex comedies, erotic dramas, and gialli, including La Morte ha sorriso all'assassino / Death Smiled at Murder and Ceremonia sangrienta / Blood Castle (both 1973) before retiring at the ripe old age of 23.
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan