Saturday, September 17, 2016

Death Laid An Egg

Death Laid An Egg aka Plucked! Aka La morte ha fatto l'uovo (1968)
Dir. Giulio Questi
Written by Franco Arcalli, Giulio Questii
Starring Ewa Aulin, Gina Lollobrigida, Jean-Louis Trintignant

What kind of movie is 1968’s DEATH LAID AN EGG? DEATH LAID AN EGG is a weird kind of movie. It’s often called a giallo, and sometimes even discussed as being some kind of meta deconstruction of a giallo. And I suppose it may be both those things, in a way. But it’s also a 1968 film. While the German Krimi cycle of Edgar Wallace adaptations had been in production since 1959, and a very few proto-giallos were beginning to trickle out of Italy, (Bava’s THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH in 1963, and his BLOOD AND BLACK LACE in 1965, and arguably a handful of other little-seen efforts), 1968 was still a full two years before Dario Argento’s THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE became a huge box office success and began, in earnest, the tsunami of giallos which would rage across the 70’s before finally deflating into total genre absurdity and irrelevance in the hazy years between the late 80’s and early 90’s. In other words, if director Giulio Questi (in English, I assume, “Johnny Quest” -- only a smattering of theatrical films, including DJANGO KILL! IF YOU LIVE, SHOOT) was really intending his oddball art-slasher as some kind of commentary on the emerging genre, he was surely one of the first to perceive it. No one was thinking about the giallo as a genre in 1968, and even if they were, it was still in such a undeveloped, prototypical form that any attempt to imitate it was inevitably doomed to miss many of its key features -- which, indeed, had yet to consistently manifest themselves.   

So let us not call DEATH LAID AN EGG a giallo. In fact, we might be unwise to call it a horror movie at all. It’s more art movie than slasher; not unlike the recent STRANGE COLOR OF YOUR BODY’S TEARS, it seems like the conventional giallo plot of a horror movie reduced down to its vaguest outline. Wikipedia offers a disappointingly concrete explanation of the plot, so maybe it is possible to parse out what’s going on here, but if so, I was completely unable to do so on the first try. Here is what I can say: the film is sort of about Marco (Jean-Louis Trintignant, AND GOD CREATED WOMAN, THE GREAT SILENCE, THE CONFORMIST, RED [the Krzysztof Kieślowski one, not the Bruce Willis one], 2012’s AMOUR) and Anna (Gina Lollobrigida, Italian actress, sculptor, renowned photojournalist, and international sex symbol --which is a lot to put on a business card, but probably worth it-- who appeared in everything from HOTEL PARADISO with Alec Guinness to The Love Boat which I have not looked into in detail but I do not believe ever featured Alec Guinness. But we’ll always love her as a star of TV’s Falcon Crest). Marco and Anna, I think, run some sort of futuristic chicken factory (that part I’m pretty sure of, because a lot of the action takes place there), and have a strained relationship. This might be at least in part because Marco has a side hobby of bringing prostitutes to hotels and murdering them. I think. It’s all a little vague. Anyway, complicating this Rockwellian domestic tableau is Gabri (Ewa Aulin, a former “Miss Teen Sweden” fresh off her starring role in the 1968 flop CANDY, where she starred alongside John Huston, Marlon Brando, Richard Burton, Walter Matthau, James Coburn and [who else?] Ringo Starr), who is, I dunno, like a cousin or something (?) and who has possibly some nefarious designs on one or more of our heroes.

As should be obvious, communicating a taut, suspenseful thriller plot is not high on the list of DEATH LAID AN EGG’s priorities. Instead, weird, Buñuelian situations abound in the vaguely absurdist mechanized chicken factory, including a prototype mutant chicken with no head, wings or even bones, a chicken-killing machine with a megaphone and built-in soundtrack which inspires the chickens to accept their deaths, and a tie-wearing office worker with a shelf full of files on chickens, all of which contain live chickens. Most amusing are a series of meetings with some kind of shadowy pro-chicken association, which claims “the difficulty we face is that no one knows poultry,” and aims to address this shocking lack of public knowledge with a series of comically overwrought chicken advertisements. Clearly chickens are some kind of metaphor here, but I have absolutely no clue what it could mean, if it was ever supposed to “mean” anything.

There’s definitely some kind of double-crossing murder plot which filters through the cracks here, but for a movie usually billed as a giallo there’s surprisingly little blood and no tits. Instead, you get plenty of wild experimental editing (in a few instances, almost comparable to the following year’s EASY RIDER in its rapid blending of two scenes) and strange music (acid jazzy and experimental, often employing strange, percussive sounds on a guitar or piano), and curious, dreamlike images and events (a “truth room” empty of all items, a chicken lab, ubiquitous egg imagery, a giant grinder machine). What does it all mean? It means you’re either going to sit there grinning at the joyful strangeness of it all, or you’re going to sit there clawing your eyes out waiting for something to happen. I went with option #1, but your mileage may vary depending more or less on how tolerant you are of absurdist surrealist art cinema infecting and completely subsuming your meat-and-potatoes giallo plots. (Also, your tolerance for what may be the highest per-frame volume of on-screen chickens in the history of cinema.)

At their best, giallos are essentially art cinema anyway; painterly images and dream logic haphazardly draped over a boilerplate nonsense mystery yarn. This one simply minimizes the exploitation elements of the genre a little more than normal --and not even radically so, considering what you could reasonably expect from a 1968 film-- but the impulse towards massaging a shifty murder plot into a tangled fever dream of abstract images and Freudian symbolism is more obvious than ever. You know what, I think I managed to convince myself that it is a giallo after all.  

Play it Again, Samhain

See Them Tear Each Other Apart! Then See What They Do With the Pieces! (This actually does sort of happen, if you consider death-by-chicken-grinder to be “tearing each other apart”) or, my favorite, We Are Not Permitted To Even Hint At What Happens, But It’s More Than Murder, which I assume is advertising department code for “what the fuck is this movie about?”
Actually this is a pretty highbrow cast; Gina Lollobrigida and Jean-Louis Trintignant have done lots of fancy pants Euro-art movies. Ewa Aulin also did some highbrow stuff, but she was also directed by both Tinto Brass and Joe D’Amato, so A-list doesn’t quite apply.
Once you see the chicken-grinding machine you gotta figure someone’s gonna end up in there, but it’s not too graphic.
Not really in structure or content, but apparently the world has decided it is, so what do I know?
Chicken into chicken-blob, I guess.

Since I have no idea what the plot is, I’m gonna just say, “this should really feature the Dead Kennedy’s classic dystopian anthem “Chicken Farm,” and it’s a shame it wasn’t written until 1985.
Well, obviously death does not literally lay an egg, but it is a funny title which references all the chickens and the death, so I’ll allow it. It’s alternate title, PLUCKED! Also works. But I notice most of the classy actors in the cast have chosen to include it in their filmographies by its most flagrantly phony and innocuous name, A CURIOUS WAY TO LOVE.

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