Thursday, April 4, 2013

Perverted Families, Dehumanization, and...Chicken Farming?


Death Laid an Egg (1968)
Director: Giulio Questi
Rating: 8 / 10

Giulio Questi left a brief but fascinating mark on Italian cinema in the late 60's, directing only a handful of films (including the seriously weird Django Kill... If You Live, Shoot!) before drifting off to TV movie obscurity. His 1968 feature, Death Laid an Egg, works within the then-fledgling genre of the giallo and pushes it into the psychosexual territory that films such as In the Folds of the Flesh and The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh would explore in later years. It's questionable how pure a giallo Death Laid an Egg actually is, but with such an expansive genre there's more than a little room for some creativity. However unconventional it may be, many of the themes and imagery will be familiar to any giallo fan. The story centers around secrets (even if few are kept from the viewer), and features some pathologically voyeuristic camerawork, drawing in the familiar giallo theme of seeing the forbidden. It even throws in a pair of murderous black gloves - although it's not the villain who's wearing them, but a main character.

Our hero.
Honestly, Death Laid an Egg does not have a great plot, but what it lacks in narrative quality is more than balanced out with weirdness. Anna and Marco are a husband and wife team who own a chicken farm. Their farm has recently upgraded to machinery that is nearly fully automated, and has displaced dozens of workers. The couple runs most aspects of the farm now, with only their childlike assistant Gabrielle to help them. Despite the increase in productivity, Marco seems to resist modernization at every turn, and is wary of being caught between the profit-hungry administration and the increasingly irate workers lurking outside the farm. Maybe he sees that he's just as disposable, and could easily end up on the other side of the fence. Meanwhile, Anna seems to have mixed up her dissatisfaction with her marriage with her career ambitions. She's on board with all the changes occuring in the factory, no matter how drastic they may seem, and Gabrielle is there to back her up at every step. Gabrielle is more than just a secretary though. She simultaneously completes the symbolic nuclear family and acts as the third leg in a love triangle between the three main characters. She's manipulative as hell and constantly plays Marco and Anna against each other. A triangle like this can't end well, especially with someone as cunning as Gabrielle mixed up in it.

Best frenemies.
It's interesting that this film is so transparent about plot points that other films might have concealed to build suspense. The film opens, shockingly, with Marco murdering a prostitute in a hotel room. There's no attempt to hide his identity from the viewer, although filming the scene from the perspective of a voyeur underlines the secret nature of his crimes. From the moment Gabrielle appears, her devious motives are so clearly telegraphed that you wonder how Marco and Anna can be oblivious to her games. It's not hard to figure out the broad arc of this plot, and the few twists at the end don't really change its outcome. With so much information on the table, the film is left to luxuriate in the ponderous angst of its characters. They're constantly musing on their relationships, the future of the farm, choices they've made, and choices they'll have to make.

In fact, there's so much alluded to that the plot ends up being almost an afterthought. What stood out most prominently to me was the commentary on the dissolution and perversion of the nuclear family. Marco is a staunch traditionalist, the stoic father figure who acts as the foundation of the company and the family. Unfortunately the "vice" of killing hookers hints at a deeper corruption - one he's painfully aware of but is unsure how to combat. His response: harden himself against the modern world, even as he's fucking his symbolic daughter Gabrielle. As much as Gabrielle plays to his lust, she's also taking advantage of Anna's desire for something more. Gabrielle and Anna's relationship remains platonic on camera, but there's no way in hell it isn't also physical. Look at how Gabrielle is sexualized when she shares the frame with Anna:


They're even caught sleeping together by Marco:


Anna is downright fascinated with Gabrielle. She's constantly talking about how pretty she is, and how she'd like to pull her apart into pieces. "It wouldn't be to destroy her, but to remake her." Even when Anna is looking at photos of Gabrielle they aren't enough. "Too bad photographs aren't like mirrors," she says, dissatisfied with their permanence. Anna wants a break from her boring, stifling marriage, and Gabrielle is the walking avatar of youth, change, and freedom. Knowing she can't have Gabrielle, she latches onto the more tangible changes the administrators are forcing on her factory. The tension between Marco's resistance to change and Anna's love for it is wound tighter by Gabrielle until something eventually snaps.

As if the love triangle wasn't unstable enough, enter a fourth player: the publicity specialist Mondaini, sent to the factory by the administrators to help brainstorm new ways to sell the public on the dietary benefits of chicken. He's the link between the corporate higher-ups and those managing the factory, but it's clear he favors the stance of those in power. Just look at an image from his new marketing campaign:


Chickens as people, or people as chickens? Mondaini views both consumers and workers as animals - soulless things to be used in favor of a profit. He's selling them the notion that they're something more, but really they only exist to be chewed up and shat out.

Let the beast run wild.
This is brilliantly conveyed in a scene where Marco and Anna throw a party, in which Mondaini organizes a bizarre party game. A room is completely emptied, to "free ourselves from the tyranny of objects," then a couple spends some time alone in the room. How much time is up to them, and what happens in the room can't be spoken of to anyone else. What should be just an adult version of "seven minutes in heaven" turns into a setting where the partygoers descend into existential introspection. Some come out shaken, some titillated. We don't find out what happens to most of them when they're inside, but the few we do see seem reduced to their base animal natures. The room strips away all that's human about them - Mondaini is turning them into chickens trapped in a pen. Is it any wonder that Gabrielle sees his ability to manipulate people as attractive? Her involvement with Mondaini is the final destabilizing factor in Marco and Anna's little family.

Cinematographer Dario Di Palma also plays around with the notion of dehumanization by frequently treating the characters like objects. The close-ups are a little too close, the subjects often just a little too far to the sides of the frame. The focus occasionally shifts to inanimate objects, then back to the characters in a series of quick cuts. It's one of many disconcerting elements of the film, the other notable one being Bruno Maderna's off-kilter score. It's jazzy and noisy (like a chicken coop?) in a way that's not at all pleasant to listen to. Fitting, but jarring.


There's so much that's atypical about Death Laid an Egg when you compare it to other gialli: how it eschews an urban setting for a rural one (a farm for god's sake), how it pushes the murder mystery to the side and doesn't even keep the identity of the killer a secret. I haven't even mentioned the science experiments taking place on the farm, which have the feeling of something out of a cheap sci-fi production of the same era. There's just so much going on in this film that it's almost never boring (which, admit it, many gialli are). But does it qualify as a good giallo? That depends on what you're looking for. While it bumps up against the walls of what's expected of a typical giallo, the sheer ambition of it all justifies it for me. Those wanting a more straightforward suspense story should look elsewhere, but if you're willing to indulge a meandering, digressive plot focused mainly on the psychosexual angst of its characters with some left-leaning politics thrown in for good measure, then you've found your film.

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