Friday, January 9, 2009

Review of Death Laid an Egg

If there’s any giallo that could be considered weirder than “Footprints on the Moon” (1975), it would probably have to be Giulio Questi’s “Death Laid an Egg” (1967). The strangeness begins with the title, a surprisingly relevant pun considering that the plot concerns a twisted love triangle on a mechanized chicken farm. The story, dialogue, editing and music all sort of run off and do their own peculiar thing, creating an end product that lies somewhere between head-trip, thriller and social critique.

[Image: Anna and Gabrielle posing for an impromptu chicken modeling session.]

The great French actor Jean-Louis Trintingnant stars as Marco, who is unhappily married to Anna, the ambitious and unethical owner of a chicken farm undergoing rapid modernization. The two look after the young Gabrielle, a distant cousin of Anna and surreptitious mistress to Marco. There is also a mysterious fourth player, Mondaini, an advertising expert who is helping Marco design a new chicken-themed marketing campaign.

[Image: An example of Mondaini’s ad campaign which features chickens as central figures in society like politicians, soldiers and, as seen here, doctors.]

It takes some time before there is any sense of what the plot is going to be. Unlike the usual giallo structure, there is no unidentified killer knocking off beautiful women one by one. Well… except for Marco, who regularly meets and murders prostitutes at a motel, but I’m not counting those.

Instead, the story revolves around the bizarre relationships between Marco, Anna, Gabrielle and Mondaini, who are each plotting their own dastardly agendas. There is no shortage of amusing insinuations, clues and red herrings to occupy our time before each scheme falls into place, ultimately stitching a web of immorality that knits together the doomed quartet even as they are ripped asunder and deviled* by their machinations . As the deliciously salacious tagline says: “See them tear each other apart. Then see what they do with the pieces.”

At the black heart of the plot is a plan to frame a character for a murder he/she already intended to commit, exactly the type of fatal irony that the nihilistic tone demands. But the core of the story and its character dynamics are often less interesting than the peripheral details. These include,

1) A robotic grain distributer which becomes a diabolical killing machine,

[Image: Marco’s dog Blackie, moments before it is ground into slush by Anna’s titanic milling machine. There might have been some emotional punch behind this scene if Questi had introduced the dog more than a minute before they kill it, but it at least registers as stomach-churning.]

2) A psychotic poultry corporation willing to stop at nothing for more profit, and
[Image: An example of the tasteful (and tasty!) corporate art featured at Anna’s parent company.]

3) a scientist who creates hideous chicken freaks, born without heads or wings, to increase meat output.
[Image: Just when you think the film won’t get any more disturbing it introduces mutant chickens bred to be pulsating spheres of pure meat.]

There’s no question that Questi and co-writer Franco Arcalli were trying to get across a potent message about the direction consumer culture, the sexual revolution and corporate modernization was leading, but the way they contrive to combine them is almost too trippy to translate. Their dialog isn’t successful on a serious level. Arcalli strings together hard-boiled* quips that waver awkwardly between artsy psychological insights and hilarious nonsense, but never come close to real world conversations. Below is an example:

Anna: I was noticing Gabrielle today. We were down at the pool together.
Marco: Gabrielle! What does she have to do with anything?
Anna: Her body seems to be made of separate parts… beautifully united, but still each one perfected to be separated and put together again.
Marco: You make her sound like a toy you and can dissemble just for the fun of it. You might kill her in the process.
Anna: It wouldn’t be to destroy her, but to remake her… a different way every time.
Marco: That’s pretty abstract.
Anna: There’s nothing abstract about Gabrielle when you see her nude.

And so on. The best part is that Anna isn’t even planning to kill Gabrielle or anything. She actually really likes her!

Stranger still is the soundtrack, which consists of discordant experimental jazz compositions primarily featuring someone plucking on a Spanish guitar with very little sense of melody. While not pleasant to listen to in a conventional sense, it actually fits quite well with the prickly, unhinged atmosphere and staccato deliveries. It also matches the jerky, startling editing that really defines the film’s rhythm.

[Image: Marco and Gabrielle having a tense conversation in the empty white “room of truth.” Even if I provide context for that description, it still wouldn’t really explain it.]

It makes a certain sense that Arcalli also served as editor. He clearly knew exactly how he wanted to chop the film up, and what type imagery should accompany each scene. “Death Laid an Egg” is a rare slow film that makes use of fast editing, particularly a wide array of off-kilter, mood-manipulating montages.

Some of the montages move so quickly and with such packed imagery that they come closer to collages. An early example occurs when Marco is driving on the highway, flashing past billboards that may represent and foreshadow the oppressive corporate yoke (yolk?) that weighs down on him.

Most of the montages tend to be from Marco’s point of view, drawn from his surroundings and reflecting the way his dreams are falling apart, not to mention the scrambled*, disintegrating state of his mind. The art direction pitches in motifs of broken glass (thankfully no scenes of him staring into broken mirrors), broken eggs (inevitably) and all sorts of sharp or fragmented objects. This plays into Marco’s obsession with knives and razors, which might be seen as his reaction to the exasperating smoothness of his corporate cage with its ovoid eggs, chicken blobs and grinding cylinders.

[Image: Marco’s reserved motel room, where he escapes to when he gets a hankering for stabbing, also features some pointy, jagged artwork.]

The consensus amongst the relatively few critics who have watched “Death Laid an Egg” seems to be that the film is a difficult and frustrating beast that lashes out experimental tentacles in all directions and generally makes a mess of everything. Personally, I found the film to be deeply thought-provoking, shockingly creative and oddly cogent. It’s probably one of my favorite giallo, and I tentatively recommend it for giallo-surrealist fans.

Walrus Rating: 8.5
[Images: (Top) The early sunny-side-up* images of the chicken farm with the happy couple and free chickens and (Bottom) the darker pessimistic counterpart near the end of the film when the birds are caged and the couple… absent.]

* My apologies.

13 comments:

Mad Dog said...

Wow, I HAVE to see this now. Queued! For more social commentary using chickens as a metaphor, I suggest Baraka. There's a lovely sequence in there likening people in big cities to baby chicks in an assembly line.

And why is it so easy to make egg puns?!

Walrus said...

I seem to recall the Baraka metaphor. In Koyanisqatsi it was that we are hotdogs, right? Or maybe tanks.

As for egg puns, do you remember how some egg company had a section of the Kansas newspaper when we were growing up that printed kid's drawings of egg-based puns? What was up with that?

Mad Dog said...

Not only that, they would print WHATEVER egg pun you happened to send in. It was perhaps the nadir of poultry humor.

Brandon said...

Hi there!
I like your blog a lot and would like to trade links with you. I have a blog called Demon Women - http://demonwomen.sensualwriter.com. It describes movies, short films and music videos that depict women as bad Girls or villians. Just let me know if your interested in a link trade.

Thanks,

Brandon Loucks

Kathryn said...

How did you come across this one?

Eric P said...

interesting. my own experience with the gaillo genre is rather limited. i'll have to queue this up. thanks

Neil Fulwood said...

You had me at “twisted love triangle on a mechanized chicken farm”. This is officially on my ‘must see’ list.

Walrus said...

Katie,

Found this courtesy of Giallo Fever.

Neil,

This is right up your alley. The film was available on a Japanese region DVD with english subs, but I believe it is out of print. If you want a torrent, contact me at filmwalrus@gmail.com.

theczech said...

"This plays into Marco’s obsession with knives and razors, which might be seen as his reaction to the exasperating smoothness of his corporate cage with its ovoid eggs, chicken blobs and grinding cylinders."

All of a sudden the word "ovular" is leaping to mind.

Thanks Anthony Perkins.

Rock Hyrax said...

Somehow, we even had the godawful egg pun newspaper thing up in Maine when I was growing up. Even as a kid, I was baffled that anyone would want to look at (or concieve of and submit!) something like Mick JEGGer. And mad that it took up space that might otherwise have gone to real comics. Not quite Night Bacon, granted, but getting up there.

Also, I totally love this movie, and as usual, really appreciated your analysis.

Walrus said...

Thanks for all the nice comments! I haven't seen this film again since writing this review and I lost the torrent during a computer change about a year ago. I've since required it and plan to watch it again sometime soon. We'll see if it lives up to my memories!

Incidentally, I've since watched another Questi film, the severely overpunctuated western "Django, Kill!... If You Live, Shoot!" Not nearly as good, but consistently strange and savage.

It hurts my soul that the Egg Pun section of the newspaper managed to reach Maine. It especially pained me that kids would just choose a noun (like say, "cat") and then right "EGGcellent cat" and draw and egg with cat ears. But you could put EGGcellent in front of anythings! And kids did! And they printed it every time!

Walrus said...

Rock Hyrax,

Your photos, which I am very impressed by, drew me in. Then I scroll down and read your film log. Then I scroll down and read your book log.

Argento, Teshigahara, Vlacil, Zeman, Jancso, Robbe-Grillet, Schulz, Krasznahorkai, Ware, etc! If I were using a series of obscure but beloved last names as the access code to my gem vault, you'd be able to rob me blind. And you'd even know to look for my house key in the Estonian animated shorts film reel next to my "Welcome" mat.

I recently moved to Wyoming so you'll have to excuse me if I'm a little overjoyed to have contact with someone who appreciates gialli and East European film and literature. Have we communicated before? Shoot me an email at filmwalrus@gmail.com. I want to get talking.

watch movies online said...

Odd giallo wrapped in a pseudo-Godardian package, complete with random shots of chickens, a fiery car accident, and more.