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The Forgotten: Giulio Questi’s “Death Laid an Egg” (1968)

Murder, adultery and conspiracy amid the chicken-rearing elite in Giulio Questi’s barking mad “Death Lays an Egg.”
Maestro Giulio Questi is otherwise best known for Django... Kill! (1967), maybe the most extreme, sadistic and demented spaghetti western ever made. The following year he made a unique sort-of-giallo, Death Laid an Egg, which isn't specially extreme in terms of bloodletting (the competition there would be very stiff), but is simply one of the craziest films ever made in any genre, combining as it does two subjects of compelling interest to the public: homicide and intensive poultry farming.
We open with eerie microscope images of a biological nature, with a soundtrack eerily evoking the effect of a computer, a piano and a suit of armor having sex while falling down a flight of metal stairs. Then the film launches into its first murder: seemingly our hero, Jean-Louis Trintignant, is addicted to knifing hookers in a motorway hotel. Trintignant is married to Gina Lollobrigida, and they live with Ewa Aulin in what seems one plot development away from a full-fledged ménage à trois. And they're also in the chicken business.
The battery farm has recently gone automatic, and the downsized workers skulk outside, like Hitchcock's brooding birds, causing alarm to the smartly-dressed rich folks in the plush interiors. As with many gialli, character sympathy is not considered a desirable goal, and the film floats along with its petulant leads displaying Antonioniesque ennui and anomie. Some kind of Diabolique-type plot twists are doubtless being prepared, but like many twist ending films, the movie has little to busy itself with while the red herrings are stacking up. Questi's main tool to keep us engaged is the downright bizarre.
A conversation is filmed entirely with shots of the protagonists' bare backs, Trintignant's shot from a low angle so it stretches upwards like a pink mountain. Serious business conversations about how to promote the chicken are attended to. A seemingly irrelevant road smash is spliced into epileptic blipverts. And a chicken scientist develops a new strain of fowl, born headless and wingless but capable of growing to full, brainless maturity in hours. The possibility that some satire is intended here should not be dismissed.
An advertising campaign designed to show the importance of chickens in society.
I'm sorry to say I've only been able to see this film in a dubbed version, but I really hope the authentic Italian dialogue has the same demented, disjointed, discombobulated manner, like Pinter on an autocue read by sleepwalkers who keep skipping lines or clauses or words or syllables.
The opening lines are sexy banter as imagined by an autistic J.G. Ballard impersonator:
"You've got beautiful eyes."
"You like them?"
"Yes. Get undressed. What are you waiting for?"
An interesting approach. Try it! Later, Lollobrigida and Aulin attend the soulless hotel bar where Trintignant picks up his victims. They only suspect him of adultery at this point. They check out the talent pool:
"You move like they do. What's the matter?"
"Just an impression, that's all. I've never seen such an expression as that one over there has in her eyes. It's real weird!"
"I see what you mean. She's been around."
"No, that's not it. It was indefinable, almost a capacity for cruelty. Suffering and causing suffering. To degrade herself and someone else."
"Lingerie is important too, your bra and panties are almost as important as what's under them."
This is dialogue as written by a computer reared on Letters to Penthouse.
"I am proud to be the first filmmaker to show that chickens are terrifying and cannibalistic." Not a line from the film, a quotation from Werner Herzog, who foregrounded his chicken phobia in Even Dwarfs Started Small. But Giulio Questi, in fact, was there first...

The Forgotten is a fortnightly column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.
Thank you for the interesting reading, David! This is indeed mindblowing stuff from the good old days of 1968 Italy. One note: The editor of this film was the incomparable Franco "Kim" Arcalli: most of the films he edited during his career are dynamite, do check them out if you liked the crazy editing of Questi's "Death Laid an Egg". By the way, there is a great book about Arcalli for people who can read Italian - highly recommended.
Wow -- Zabriskie Point, Last Tango in Paris, Identikit, The Night Porter, Desert of the Tartars, 1900.... and one of the army of credited writers on Once Upon a Time in America.
... and it is rumored that Arcalli was the first choice for editing Apocalypse Now. But, sadly, he died.
Makes total sense, since Coppola also recruited Storaro from The Conformist (whose clapperboard he owns), despite not really sharing a language other than cinema.

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