Giulio Questi's Django Kill... If You Live, Shoot! (1967) and Death Laid an Egg (1968) are playing October and November 2019 on MUBI in the United States.
In December 2014, Giulio Questi died, and the cinema lost an unflappable renegade of the arts. His name does not get dropped as often as that of his contemporaries, but those that know his films speak of them with open-eyed reverence, as much in awe of their existence as of their quality. Marked with a crazy energy, a surreal visual style, and an eccentricity in narrative that can leave a viewer baffled, his work has that experiential cult quality akin to that of Alejandro Jodorowsky: you have to see it to believe it.
His career was marked with notable lapses and absences. “My movies have always been appreciated and admired by cinema insiders but they did not get a lot of money, so it was not easy to do them. It took a long time between one movie and the other,” Questi stated in an interview1. He was ever-evolving, always pushing the boundaries of cinema. A true believer in the unlimited potential of storytelling, he said “the tale is free and has no limit because it tells everything that can happen.”
Late in his career, well past the period that formed his cult successes, he picked up a consumer camcorder and began to single-handedly make pictures, placing himself both in front of and behind the camera. He claimed he was using the camera as a pen and that the resultant image was truly and purely his.
He had, in a sense, a reversal of the anticipated path of modern filmmakers. His early career had him working on a larger-scale surrealistic action picture and directing international stars such as Jean-Louis Trintignant. He from there progressed to recording shorts with his camcorder, in his home, by himself.
Not that anything in Questi’s career could be categorized as normal. He began writing stories and making documentaries. “Documentary movies for me were very useful because I learned to use the camera directly,” he said2. He turned to assistant directing and short films. His knack for writing got him screenwriting credits on films like 1965’s The Possessed, co-written with directors Luigi Bazzoni and Franco Rossellini, about a man searching for a woman presumed to have committed suicide.
He was fortunate early in his career to find a creative partner in Franco Arcalli, who would serve as both a co-writer and editor for several of Questi’s pictures. They set out to work on a script that would comment on greed, consumerism, classism, misogyny, and numerous other loose strands in an attempt to explore (some might even say explode) contemporary society.
Then Alessandro Jacovoni called. A producer in what Questi called an adventurous period for Italian cinema, Jacovoni came to Questi and Arcalli with an offer they could not refuse: he would finance a motion picture if it were a western, and if they were ready with the plot of this western… by the next day.
Questi stepped up to the challenge: “With Franco, we started throwing down the plot, inserting the usual Western shit: assaults, bandits, gold. Moreover, being both partisans, we fed the story by inserting our bad experiences of war.”3
War had formed and scarred Questi, and would influence and guide his entire career. The bleak view of humanity that would shine through in Death Laid an Egg, the screenplay Questi and Arcalli were working on when Jacovoni arrived, would also emerge in what would become known as Django Kill…If You Live, Shoot! (1967).
“I was part of the Partisan struggle for two years,” Questi said in an interview. “We lived through gunfights, roundups, successful ambushes. We fought against the Black Brigades, the Fascists…this war really affected me because I was 19. I stepped into my adult life with war, nothing else. For me, it became a life lesson for everything.” While he would never make a film directly on this, it seeped into the pictures. “This experience clearly influenced my films. For example, my western, ‘Django Kill,’ with its episodic nature, with its particular ferocity, with its sense of death, its sense of adventure towards death, towards a clash, stems from my experience in war. All of the things I had encountered.”4
The result was the bleakest spaghetti western put to celluloid. Starting out with a bandit (referred to as The Stranger and played by Tomas Milian) who has been double-crossed and left for dead, the viewer is led to believe that The Stranger will follow the well-traveled path of the revenge tale. And so he does… until his backstabbing bandit peers enter a town dubbed “The Unhappy Place,” a village so vile that no sooner than the citizens learn the bandits may have gold, they set about dispatching them. All but one of the murderous bandits have already been killed by the time The Stranger arrives at The Unhappy Place.
The Stranger soon shoots this last bandit and then the film takes an interesting turn. The Stranger opts to stay in The Unhappy Place. He is not welcome. And the citizens now look to him for the gold they so desire.
The Unhappy Place gave Questi the setting to investigate the dark side of humanity, and celluloid afforded him the medium to explore memory and the past. Questi and Arcalli developed a fragmented style, at times even commingling two different time periods. This serves as both expository shorthand as well as an emotional guidepost—the spliced edits evoke what the character is thinking about, what drives him at that particular moment. As The Stranger is being exhumed and brought back to life at the beginning of Django, Kill Questi cuts to washed-out flashback images that reveal the betrayal that led him there. “You won’t get away with this!” The Stranger screams. And with that simple and jarring edit, the viewer knows both how The Stranger wound up near death, where he will now head, and why.
Questi would refine this approach in Death Laid an Egg (1968), a tale of Jean-Louis Trintignant, his wife (Gina Lollobrigida), and his lover. During one scene, Trintignant and his mistress Gabrielle (Ewa Aulin) travel fast in an automobile, while sharing a conversation about a trip Gabrielle did not want to take. Questi intercuts a scene of a car crash—a vehicle on fire and a dazed and dying man wandering near the scene. The narrative makes no direct comment on this, but Questi’s images fill in the background, suggesting a dark memory from this unwanted trip, and an uneasy past that Gabrielle is navigating herself out of.
The climax of Django, Kill… contains this editing pattern as well, this time cutting between the explosions that The Stranger has set in motion, with almost newsreel-like footage of war and brutal images of corpses. Questi takes no prisoners with his images, not allowing the acts of murder to become entertaining spectacle. Greed and morality pop up in Django, Kill with graphic illustration. After The Stranger shoots his would-be murderer with gold-plated bullets, the townspeople carry the wounded man away, presumably to attempt to save his life. After discovering the gold lodged within him however, they tear into his flesh and remove the pieces. Questi shoots this well-lit, in close-up: a graphic nightmare visual of man’s inhumanity to man.
This was, in part, what was really on Questi’s mind. He and Arcalli had been working on the script to Death Laid An Egg when they were hired for Django, Kill. They were able to make Death the following year in 1968.
Death Laid An Egg has acquired a sort of cult status for its bonkers plot, lurid sensuality, and the audacity to mix class warfare with giallo and mutated chickens. All of these things it is, but beneath the excess is again an examination of morality and of a humanity stomped out by greed and class. It is a strange world where the character who may be killing hookers in his hotel room seems the closest the picture has to a moral compass. “He may be odd, but he’s a real gentleman,” a girl says. Jean-Louis Trintignant, as Marco, is that gentleman. He and his wife run a chicken farm that through automation has managed to lay off a numbers of employees, who protest outside. While this is happening, they are also engineering mutations of chickens to increase profits. Oh, and Marco has a hotel room rented out to him so that he can kill prostitutes.
Questi and Arcalli double-down on their intense, jagged style to invoke a constant sense of unease and paranoia. It is as if he wants the viewer to go batshit along with our protagonist Marco. In one dynamic scene, Marco exits a building and sees Gabrielle in a car. Questi crosscuts between Marco, the car, and scenes of traffic. Giant close-ups of stop lights and Gabrielle are mixed between shots of moving traffic and medium shots of Marco running to catch up to her. The tempo of the editing ruthlessly builds anticipation; the cuts, without visual correlation from one shot to the next irritate and unsettle. The red light turns green. Marco runs, stopping by a tree. Shots of traffic. Shots of cars. Then… a car pulls right up to Marco, seeing him.
“Wasn’t that Gabrielle…,” From this question asked in a two-shot, Questi cuts to an extreme close-up of the car’s driver. The shot is too tight and anything but aesthetically pleasing. It is alarming and Questi utilizes his camera to demand the viewer feel how Marco does. He does not trust the driver, this intense image suggests. It is not safe. Nothing is.
It is a film of insanity, with untrustworthy perspectives. Marco himself sums it up best when he says, “I want to clean it. It’s impossible. You can’t clean it.” The world of Death Laid An Egg is a messy one, and Questi constructs anything but a tidy picture.
Whether the film was ultimately too bleak or the aggressive editing was not in audience favor, they were certainly what Questi intended. He stated he often opted for an organic approach to editing where he would “follow the rhythm of the story. Sometimes it needs hectic editing and sometimes slower. At the end the result is something other than the standard of traditional movies, but its fine for me.”
It would not be the editing that would turn out to be the strangest thing about Django, Kill and Death Laid an Egg, but rather just how closely together in time Questi was able to finance and produce them. This would not happen again.
After 1968’s Death, Questi didn’t make another picture until 1972 with Arcana, his weird tale of psychics and incest. That these three pictures consist of a western, a giallo, and the supernatural is not an accidental thing. “The genre movie has always been of great interest to me because it always guarantees a well-structured dramaturgy, following some patterns that are always fruitful. Once this convention is accepted you can put anything inside a movie. It always depends on the imagination and things you have to say.”
And while Questi found you could put anything inside a movie, the popular audience did not always agree. Unable to find work in the cinema during the ‘80s and ‘90s, he transitioned over to television. “I’m completely an outsider compared to contemporary industrial cinema and I produce only just what I can. It’s not a question of resistance. Even if I have something to say about cinema produced in Italy today, contemporary Italian cinema is rarely interesting.” Which is what ultimately led him to truly independent cinema.
He speaks of his first encounter with a store-purchased camcorder as an act of consumerism. Questi stashed the camcorder in a closet, only being called back to it after a time. He found that he liked the way the camcorder captured light, and he liked the immediacy of the image. You shot it, you plugged the camera into your computer, and if you did not like what you saw, you simply reshot. His main dilemma? He did not like the look of his face.
This was an obstacle he could handle, unlike the battles of financiers and censors that his earlier work had suffered through. Questi seemed refreshed, renewed, and energized with the possibilities of video and storytelling. He managed to produce a series of subversive short films, hand-crafted, before dying in 2014 at the age of 90.
With the advent of home video, his films are more available now, and in more complete versions, then ever before. Critically re-evaluated, Django, Kill and Death Laid an Egg are now spoken about as masterpieces and pinnacles of genre. His co-writer and editor Franco Arcalli went on to a fruitful career collaborating with the likes of Bernard Bertolucci, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Sergio Leone. Much like The Stranger, one may be able to count Questi down, but never out. As new cinephiles discover his work anew every year, Questi may have left us behind, but his films are here to stay.