Not before time, the much admired but rarely seen 1968 Italian social satire Death Laid an Egg has been rediscovered and restored by Nucleus, who have also found some 14 minutes of material missing from most prints. Funnily enough, the last time that I saw this film was around quarter of a century ago, round at Nucleus head honcho Marc Morris’s place, where we watched it on an imported, incomplete, fuzzy VHS tape. As a result, my memories of the movie were as blurry as that original tape, and so seeing it again now on blu-ray was a revelation.
But here’s the thing – this film is not a giallo, unless you are one of those people who classifies every Italian non-gothic horror as gialli. Even then, I’d argue against it, because I’m not really convinced that Death Laid and Egg is a horror film. And I think that classification has been to the detriment of the film, because – and as a fan I hate to say this – horror tends to be in the ghetto, and shoving this movie in with assorted Umberto Lenzi and Sergio Martino movies about black-gloved killers has done it no favours. To be blunt, calling this a horror film is like calling Belle De Jour a soft porn film.
And I mention Luis Bunuel’s film specifically, because I think Giulio Questi’s film has far more to do with the genre-nodding, arthouse friendly, commercial yet experimental, somewhat surreal works that directors like Bunuel, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Pier Paulo Pasolini, Michelangelo Antonioni and – dare I say it – Jean-Luc Godard were making around the same period. And as those are my favourite filmmakers of the era, I don’t say that lightly. Hell, it even has Euro arthouse-chic favourite Jean-Louis Trintignant starring. Of course, the fact that this has always been marketed as an exploitation film – under increasingly unlikely titles like Plucked and A Curious Way to Love – probably hasn’t helped matters.
Sure, it has a black-gloved killer (or, spoiler alert, does it?), but there’s no mystery involved as to who it is, no hapless investigator putting together the clues, and things are not quite as they seem. The film as a whole is actually more a satire on bourgeois attitudes, greed, the class struggle and opportunistic infidelities, as various people plot against each other for control of a super modern mechanised chicken farm that has become so industrialised that it is now producing living chickens with no heads. The tensions between Marco (Trintignant), his wife Anna (Gina Lollobrigida), pouting sex kitten Gabrielle (Ewa Aulin) and publicity man Mondaini (Jean Sobieski)– all very polite on the surface, all seething with resentment, desire, ambition and dark secrets underneath – are what drive the film and its nods towards the thriller genre, but Questi is clearly not interested in making a standard genre piece, and instead deconstructs and toys with what might have seemed standard fare in other hands.
The chicken farm is some sort of futuristic nightmare (one that, vegetarians would have us believe, has no come true in a world of factory farming) while the displaced workers – much like the family in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, trained killers put out of a job by the march of technology – glower in the background, the proletariat past and the mechanised future confronting each other as the self-absorbed lead characters barely notice either. This is, frankly, far from the world of the giallo films like Martino’s So Sweet So Perverse (a 1969 production that also stars Trintignant) that proliferated in the 1970s, and much closer to the satirical class-based satire of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. Had it been made a few years later, you could almost see certain elements as a satire of the giallo film, but the genre has barely established in 1968, so it might be a bit of a leap to suggest that it was already being mocked.
Of course, there is the sense that this story could have been adapted into a more conventional thriller in less imaginative hands. As well as the narrative twists and the social satire, it’s Questi’s visual flair, his cynical approach and his humour that ensure what might have been a predictable story if done in standard Agatha Christie style keeps you intrigued and fascinated throughout as it tears through the petty ambitions of the idle rich. It’s a glorious, visually beautiful, stylish and amusing study of the four main characters and their attempts to gain control (over the farm, each other) at any cost, where jealousy, betrayal and dishonesty – all done with the utmost politeness and regard for the social graces – are the order of the day. With a touch of surrealism (the headless chickens are fantastic grotesques), some moments of shocking (and subverted) violence and slices of cool eroticism, the film oozes style and has several twists that add intrigue and a cynical sense of humour to the mix. Meanwhile, Bruno Marras’ score ranges from the lush to the maddening – the latter element at times threatening to overbalance the film’s subtle dynamics, but ultimately playing a part in the overall weirdness and cynicism.
Questi as a director, and this film in particular, ought to be up there with the great works of 1960s European cinema. If not quite a masterpiece, it’s as close as makes no odds, and can hold its own with any of those beloved Euro arthouse favourites of the time. Hopefully, this long-overdue luxury edition of his most famous and seemingly misunderstood film will hopefully help people reassess both the film and its director.