Like its companion piece in Nucleus’s “European Cult Cinema Collection”, Lady Frankenstein, Giulio Questi’s Death Laid An Egg (1968) concerns itself with the shenanigans of mad scientists. In the feudal set up of Mel Welles’ film the aristocratic protagonists own their serfs and servants, using them as experimental and sexual fodder under a Romantic patina of paternalism and progress. (*) Death Laid An Egg, in contrast, is set firmly in our own immiserated age, where rampaging technological advance connives at the neo-liberal free-for-all by which everybody’s free to, er, scramble for profit and frankly, fuck anyone who can’t keep up (well, you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs!)
Marco (Jean-Louis) Trintignant is the manager of a cutting-edge egg hatchery where automation has allowed most of the workforce to be laid off. The surplus help hang around outside, throwing insults and the occasional blunt object, much to the chagrin of Marco’s perfectly groomed, soulless wife Anna (Gina Lollobrigida). But are these luddites responsible for all of the sabotage that’s been going on at the plant? Marco is seemingly a model employee of The Association (a simultaneously menacing and ridiculous marketing board whose obsession with eggs surpasses even that of Edith Massie in Pink Flamingos) but secretly he harbours serious doubts about the way the job, society and his life are heading. When the plant’s resident GMF boffin manages to hatch a clutch of giant, headless, wingless birds, to the obvious delight of just about everyone else in the cast, Mario goes all eggs over uneasy and beats these avian atrocities to death with a wrench. His simmering discontent further manifests itself in the clandestine affair he’s conducting with Anna’s ditzy blonde cousin Gabrielle (Ewa Aulin, the Baby Spice of her day, from Joe D’Amato’s Death Smiles On A Murderer)… oh yeah, he also seems to have a penchant for butchering prostitutes in cheap motels. Slimy-slick ad man Mondaini (Jean Sobieski) is keeping tabs on Marco’s murderous side-line while pursuing a parallel affair with Gabrielle and planning a grab for Anna’s money… what could possibly go wrong?
Compounding the complexity of its plot twists (co-authored as ever by Questi’s trusty collaborator Franco Arcalli), the film is shot in oblique style with little regard for conventional cinematic grammar. Questi’s camera will focus on. e.g. Trintignant’s back while he’s delivering a line or float off to concentrate on some insignificant visual detail as the action unfolds. The avant-garde OST from Bruno Maderna and Arcalli’s radical editing further exacerbate the viewer’s disorientation… at one point Arcalli folds what looks like an episode from J.G. Ballard’s Crash (a novel that wouldn’t be published for another five years, BTW) into a routine drive taken by Marco and Gabrielle.
The black gloves donned by Marco before his assignations with those hookers are also strangely prescient pre-echos of the turn that the giallo genre would take with Dario Argento’s The Bird With The Crystal Plumage (1970). But is Death Laid An Egg (as often claimed) a giallo? It’s more properly understood as a deconstruction of that genre, akin to how Questi exploded the spaghetti western with his feature debut If You Live, Shoot! aka Django, Kill! the previous year, in the process clueing Alessandro Jodorowsky into the mystical potential of the genre (and there are moments in Santa Sangre which suggest that El Jodo wasn’t exactly unfamiliar with Death Laid An Egg, either).
Corrado Farina, one suspects, was also taking notes (check out the subliminal advertising imagery)… and don’t start me on David (insert expletive) Lynch! Elsewhere Questi seems to be cocking a snook at Antonio (“This is how you make an anti-giallo, Michelangelo… stick it in your family albumen!”)
How more Post-modern can you get on the giallo’s ass than by deploying the whole serial kill stabbing match itself as a red herring? If DLAE isn’t, after all, a giallo in the as-yet-nonexistent Argento mould (I suppose it would be fair to characterise it as the Mario Bava tendency… or one of the Mario Bava tendencies… in 1968) then it certainly has affinities with Romolo Guerrieri’s contemporary thriller The Sweet Body Of Deborah and its bonk-busting descendants directed by Umberto Lenzi (in one of which, 1969’s So Sweet… So Perverse, Trintignant would also star).
However you generify Death Laid An Egg, it’s a mesmerising work of Art. Craig Ledbetter was sufficiently mesmerised to devote a special issue of his seminal European Trash Cinema fanzine to it, reproduced here among the bonus materials along with CL’s thanks to Nucleus for finally bringing Questi’s 104 minute director’s cut to light… looking as beautiful as we have come to expect from this label, scanned as it is in HD from the original negatives with the “new” footage inserted from an Italian archival print. You get the truncated (91 minute) cut as well, of course, plus another Jones / Newman commentary track, featurettes (the BFI’s James Blackford on Questi’s work and radical politics… soundtrack collector extraordinary / DJ / Alassandro Alessandroni collaborator Lovely Jon on Bruno Maderna), an archive interview with the director himself (who passed away in 2014) during which he observes that movie-making is now within everybody’s grasp, if not access to major distribution networks, still hung up on the chicken farming model), a short appraisal from Italian critic Antonio Bruschini and another interesting insight into the cuts demanded by the BBFC for the film’s UK theatrical release (as A Curious Way To Love), alongside all the other stuff you’d expect.
The restored 14 minutes reveal a whole new character, Renato Romano’s Luigi, whose role in the overall scheme of things is wide open to interpretation. It also amplifies a suggestion that remains in the shorter cut, regarding the European Union (which was really taking off in its current incarnation round about the time this film was made) and its role as a principal driver of austerity, increasing income disparities, declining public services and terms & conditions for working people, war as a tool for prising open new markets… the full neo-liberal, er, yoke under which we’ve been labouring for the last half Century or so. As such, DLAE comes a useful corrective for the baffling rose-tinted nostalgia for the EU currently sweeping the nation. The film predicts GM food and anticipates the coming tsunami of technological advance that’s going to wash away so many more jobs… talk about chickens coming home to roost! In addition to all these valuable services, Questi proves that avant-garde dialectical materialism in the cinema doesn’t have to be as simultaneously pleased with itself and downright dull as Godard and his ilk.
Pending the arrival from left field of some unexpected and unexpectedly astonishing release from another label, this is going to be the undisputed Disc Of 2018… clucking brilliant!
(*) An early draft of this posting contained a line that ended: “… progress and enlightened paternalism derailed by the Cotten character’s hubris and the overweening impertinence of Rosalba Neri’s overheated clitoris”. Having penned that, I couldn’t resist sharing it with you.