|Submitted by Iain McLachlan |
(Dec 23, 2005)
LA MORTE HA FATTO L’UOVO
Alternate Titles: LA MORT A PONDU UN OEUF; DEATH LAID AN EGG; PLUCKED; A CURIOUS WAY TO LOVE.
Pro Cos: Summa Cinematografica/Cine Azimut//Les Films Corona SRL
Dir/Pro: Giulio Questi;
Wrs: Franco Arcalli, Giulio Questi;
Phot: Dario Di Palma;
Film Ed: Franco Arcali;
Mus: Bruno Maderna;
Scene Des: Sergio Canaveri;
Titles/Posters: Bruno Pippa, Paolo Zancuoghi.
Cast: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Gina Lollobrigida, Ewa Aulin, Jean Sobieski, Vittorio Andre, Cleofe Delcie, Giulio Donnini, Monica Millesi, Biagio Pilligra, Renato Romano.
1967 saw the production of two quite remarkable pieces of cinema courtesy of maverick Italian filmmaker Giulio Questi. The first of these was the bizarre and excessive Gothic western Se Sei Vivo Spara, released overseas as Django, Kill! to cash in on the international box office generated by Sergio Corbucci’s bleak Django (1966). This was followed a short time later by the film under review here, La Morte ha Fatto L’Uovo. Apart from their more controversial visceral elements, what both movies have in common is an attempt by Questi to distort the form and content of the genres that audiences considered the productions to be part of.
In the case of this production, the genre format being played with is the early cycle of the thriller model labelled giallo by aficionados and filmmakers alike, and whose existence is usually attributed to two very successful pictures from the founding fathers of Italian fantastic cinema Mario Bava, namely La Ragazza Che Sapeva Troppo (1962) and especially Sei Donne per L’Assassino (1964)
In one of the rooms in a motel just off the central highway, a prostitute is murdered by Marco, the owner of a chicken processing plant. The act has been witnessed by another man who appears to take no action over the incident. Later, the witness makes a phone call as the murderer leaves the building and gets into his car. Marco drives to his office where his secretary informs him that his wife has been trying to contact him about the installation of new processing equipment at the plant. At the plant, Marco and his wife, Anna, are photographed cavorting among the chickens and the new equipment by their assistant Gabrielle. The photographs are intended for a promotional piece about the facility. The wife pulls a lever which causes the fully automated processing machines to start up. Just then, an iron wrench falls off a gantry just missing Anna. She immediately puts the blame on the disgruntled workers whose jobs were replaced when the plant became fully automatic. To prove her point a group of the former workers are standing outside, silently staring at the trio. Afterwards, Anna and Gabrielle go over the photos that have been taken. One of them alarms Marco who makes his excuses and leaves. He locks himself in one of the rooms in his house and tears up the photograph that shows him holding the wrench. His wife knocks at the door and informs him that someone had called that day looking for him. Retiring to bed that night, his wife says that it was a young man who had been asking for him. She then tells him of a recurring fantasy that she has been having involving Gabrielle. Outside the witness to the murder pulls up in a car and waits. During the dead of night, Marco is awoken by the sound of a car. He makes his way to Gabrielle’s room but finds she is not there and so goes off in search of her. He soon ends up in the processing plant which is automatically lit all night. Walking through the facility, he thinks he hears the sound of a girl laughing. Marco finds himself in the research laboratory of the plant when someone shuts off the lights. Stumbling about, he knocks over a vial of liquid that looks like egg yolk and which he smears on his hands. A car is heard driving away. The next morning, Marco awakes to find himself alone. He goes outside where his wife and Gabrielle are making arrangements for an upcoming social event. Gabrielle complains of being unwell due to a sleepless night and not being able to find her medicine when she got up to look for it. Marco returns to the laboratory and finds a test tube which he may have broken and also finds a scarf lying on the floor. The scarf is inscribed with bizarre markings. The plant’s chief chemist turns up and begins operating the machinery for a test. Gabrielle and Anna are at the property’s private swimming pool when the former announces that she has invited someone to the social event. She tells Anna it is the man who was asking for Marco. The husband, meanwhile, travels to an important meeting of the Poultry Association of which he is a prominent member. Back at the laboratory, the chemist informs Anna and Gabrielle that it appears that a vial containing a radioactively manipulated formula has been tampered with and that other samples could have been contaminated. The President of the Association assigns Marco the task of promoting the organisation’s products and activities. He reluctantly agrees and is introduced to the man who will devise the marketing strategy for the campaign. It turns out to be the person who witnessed Marco’s crime…
If the plot for La Morte ha Fatto L’Uovo is laid out in its most straightforward form, then it initially resembles a fairly conventional giallo from the late 1960s.
Among the more typical recurring elements from the genre that Questi and his collaborator Franco Arcalli rework are a series of constantly shifting alliances between the lead characters, resulting in catastrophic betrayals. Here examples include that between Anna (Gina Lollobrigida) and Gabrielle (Ewa Aulin), and Marco (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Gabrielle. Their constantly changing relationships and motivations together with their effect on each other and the development of the plot are deliberately obscured for the viewer until everything comes together in the third act on by way of an extended epilogue.
A film not generally considered a giallo itself, but which nonetheless had a major influence on the genre is Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up (1965). In that movie, the audience and the hero (David Hemmings) are led to believe that a certain incident, possibly a murder, has taken place – but all is not what it seems. The issue is never fully resolved in Antonioni’s work but the premise of a character and the viewer making sense of an event (usually violent) became a stale of the second wave of giallo cinema, initiated by Dario Argento’s L’Uccello dalle Piume di Cristallo (1969). There, the plot works around the hero completely misinterpreting an assault. Here, Questi and Arcalli apparently set up Trintignant as a serial killer of prostitutes with eyewitness Jean Sobieski using this information to either blackmail or terrorise him for his own ends. Of course the actuality is much more complex.
Two largely Hollywood-based directors (but both European émigrés) who were major influences on giallo filmmakers were Alfred Hitchcock and Fritz Lang. Among the themes which show up in their work and are shared by Questi’s picture are voyeurism, characters adopting identities and personalities and the assignment of guilt along with the transference of suspicion. Among the titles that more aware viewers may recognise are Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) and two of Lang’s last American ventures While the City Sleeps and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (both1956).
Another tangentially Hitchcock-related venture that seems to have had a bearing on La Morte ha Fatto L’Uovo is Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques (1956), once mooted as a possible project for the British director. Like this that features two scheming, possibly Sapphic, females plotting against a male husband/lover and then having the tables turned on them.
If the various elements that Questi and Arcalli have introduced into the mix will be very familiar to aficionados of gialli, what really sets the picture apart from the rest of its peers is in the way the director uses the material for his own ends. This approach could be accurately described as radical.
The period from the late 1950s until the mid-1960s saw something of a revolution in filmmaking across the world from Asia to the United Kingdom. Old style studios and other organisations were being challenged by a new generation of cine-literate and culturally and politically aware movie directors. By far the most influential of these movements was the French “nouvelle vague”, instigated by the staff of critical publication Cahiers du Cinema. Critics from the magazine were noted for promoting innovative film theories that attracted much controversy, especially the auteur theory whereby the director of a motion picture is deemed to be the sole “author” of the work.
Thanks to a variety of circumstances, including the notoriety surrounding some of their pronouncements and increased government for experimental low-budget movie production, many of the staff at Cahiers du Cinema were given the opportunity of putting their theories into practice. Among the filmmakers to make the most impact as part of this movement were Francois Truffaut, Claude Chabrol and Jean-Luc Godard.
La Morte Ha Fatto L’Uovo’s director Giulio Questi has much in common with his peers in the nouvelle vague, notably that he was an established film critic who moved into film production, initially as a writer and sometime actor, eventually helming his own projects during the same period as them.
In the case of this venture, Questi seems to owe most to one particular figure from the French cinema scene, namely Jean-Luc Godard. This becomes evident early on with the presence of the existentialist lead character of Marco, played by Jean-Louis Trintigant (Cosi Dolce…Cosi Perversa 1969). Obviously inspired by the aimless anti-heroes seen in works like A Bout Souffle (1960) and Pierrot le Fou (1964), both played by Jean-Pail Belmondo, here Trintignant is an artist and intellectual who has wandered through life with little in the way of ambition or achievement, other than some published photographs and a book. At one point he decided to settle down to a more conventional life and married the shrewish owner of a chicken processing plant (Gina Lollobrigida). However, it soon transpires that he is still not in control of his life as it is actually his spouse who runs the operation, literally in fact, since the installation of fully automated machinery has ensured any human element in the process has been totally eliminated apart from a single person – the owner. His wife also controls much of his life outside of the plant, organising social events down to who should be allowed to attend them. He even allows himself to be press-ganged by the Poultry Association into heading a highly suspect marketing campaign where his sole responsibility appears to be rubber-stamping the work of others.
Marco does retain some dreams. These largely involve his eloping with his wife’s PA and impoverished cousin, Gabrielle (Ewa Aulin, Candy 1968). Unfortunately he has no idea how to go about this beyond going on the run although there is some vague notion that he will have to do away with his wife. Trintignant remains unaware that Gabrielle is in fact manipulating him in collusion with others and so his destiny is really out of his hands. The only part of his life where the leading man is apparently in control is where he lives out his darkest fantasies with aid of prostitutes, within the confines of a motel room.
Gilulio Questi’s bizarre directorial style is established from the outset, just after the opening credits have rolled. Here, a series of apparently unrelated events within the anonymous walls of a sprawling motel complex are rapidly cut together with views of the motorway, the exterior of the building and assorted signposts. The sense of disorientation generated by the editing is underlined by Dario Di Palma’s cinematography which crash zooms onto seemingly random objects and features. Some viewers may be reminded of a similar opening sequence seen in Jorge Grau’s Non Si Deve Profanare il Sonno dei Morti (1974) which also served to unsettle audiences as well.
The use of the “jump cut”, a favourite device of “nouvelle vague” filmmakers occurs throughout La Morte Ha Fatto L’Uovo. Probably the most striking sequences where it is employed both involve driving such as when Trintignant leaves the motel after murdering the prostitute and makes off down the highway. Intercut with shots of him sitting in his sports car are jarring images of road signs and other garish graphic imagery. At one point it looks as if the character may be experiencing a nervous breakdown, and indeed when he reaches his office he look dazed and confused.
Even more startling is a conversation piece involving Trintignant and Aulin where she discuss the death of her parents in a road accident. As the conversation moves into her past, Point-of-View (POV) shots of a car hurtling down the motorway are spliced together with scenes of automobile wrecks and carnage. The jarring effect of this is emphasised by the use of exaggerated sound design.
The fact that the use of jump cut is so widespread throughout the picture tends to fracture the flow and structure of the narrative, making for very challenging viewing for the uninitiated. Some critics have claimed argued that the style adopted by Questi is a clever way of heightening the lead character’s sense of dislocation and alienation from the rest of the society that he inhabits and where he has to yet find a role. Others would claim that it is merely irritatingly pretentious.
If the visual style adopted for La Morte Ha Fatto L’Uovo is intended to represent the character’s psychological and moral displacement from his environment, the presence of Bruno Maderna’s discordant music score is a master-stroke. Maderna, an avant-garde composer and conductor who worked mainly in broadcasting and the theatre, contributes a score in which guitars, violins and electronica play in styles that are wildly inappropriate for the scenes in which they appear, adding to the air of estrangement pervading the piece.
Maderna’s music is sometimes used to drown out parts of conversations between certain characters, particularly that between Aulin’s and Trintignant’s when he tries to explain his present circumstances and future hopes to her. Much of the dialogue by Questi and co-writer (and editor) alludes to much but very rarely actually states things directly, forcing the audience to make their own interpretations of character motivations and actions. Again, this reinforces the notion of alienation not just for Trintignant but most of the other characters. In this respect some viewers may be reminded not only of the work of the previously mentioned Antonioni but also American expatriate director Joseph Losey who was working in Britain at the time on projects like The Servant (1963) and Accident (1967).
The influence of two Jean-Luc Godard vehicles should not be underestimated when examining La Morte Ha Fatto L’Uovo, namely Alphaville (1965) and Weekend (1967). The impact of the former can be seen on with the use of disorientating camerawork and the appearance of bold visuals in the form of graphic design, both interior and exterior. Alphaville was set on a distant part of the galaxy but was shot in contemporary Paris. It was through a series of minor, off-kilter devices that Godard managed to convey the sense of otherness of this version of the French capital. Questi attempts this, with some success, in this picture. While large sections of the film are either set in busy Italian streets or rural areas, there are a number of locations that seem completely detached from what would be considered normal society. The first is the highway leading to the monolithic motel complex. Here, Questi manages to convey the notion of an island only tangentially linked to the rest of the world, both literally and metaphorically.
When watching the activities occurring around the motel and its environs, the idea that it appears to occupy a separate space/time continuum of its own is surprisingly acceptable. Much of the rest of the world that Trintignant moves through seems to belong to another time and place, probably the future, as evidenced by the spartan, underpopulated office from which he operates, and the stock exchange which he visits on his way to the Association. If the lead character does indeed consider himself to be in literally the wrong time and place, then the air of alienation created by Questi seems entirely appropriate.
Weekend is recalled in a number of scenes, notably the images of motorway death and destruction when Ewa Aulin’s conversation turns to her traumatic past and the lengthy dialogue exchanges taking place while marching through dense woodlands followed by an overgrown cornfield. A direct link with Godard’s venture is provided in an erotic yet disturbing talk piece between Trintignant and Gina Lollobrigida, where the latter discusses an intense dream about her cousin Aulin. Filmed from a number of bizarre camera angles (including a lengthy one showing the husband’s back) the emotional impact of the sequence is further undermined by Maderna’s discordant music score, echoing the effect that Godard was trying to achieve in his work.
Godard and his colleagues within the nouvelle vague frequently branched out into surrealism to make a point in their works and so does Questi with La Morte Ha Fatto L’uovo. Among the array of decidedly offbeat material on show here is where Jean Sobieski (Una Historia Perversa 1969), the witness to Trintignant’s crime and now in charge of producing material for the Poultry Association’s new marketing campaign, presents a series of grotesque posters involving chickens seen in situation normally associated with humans, such as work and social gathers. In a marked piece of satire, Questi and Arcalli suggest that the lines between the humans and the things that they consume are becoming increasingly blurred, with the two species taking on the other’s characteristics. This speculation is underlined by the former employees of the processing plant who are seen standing idly outside the building, simply staring. The chickens, meanwhile, are becoming more aggressive have began to attack their masters. Other satirical elements found in the work include the Poultry Association’s president’s assertion that the business should now take on the personality of politics. For some, an extension of politics is war and this is mentioned in the script as actually happening, with the Poultry Association somehow at the heart of it..
Another foray into surrealism occurs at a dinner party organised by Lollobrigida. At this event, Sobieski commandeers a white walled, circular room and empties it of furniture, leaving it entirely bare. He then invites couples into the “Room of Truth” to confront each other over their personal secrets. Different couples who have use the room have wildly different reactions. Their conversations are never heard but again Questi uses jump cutting and slow motion to highlight the otherworldly nature of this location. Their time in the room proves particularly traumatic for Trintignant and Aulin, especially when someone plunges it into darkness.
By far the film’s most outrageous sequence, possibly the main talking point for those who have seen it, occurs at the plant’s research laboratory. Here, the film suddenly veers off into science fantasy as a culture, apparently contaminated by the hero, produces a batch of mutant chickens with no heads and no legs. The birds which grow at a fantastic rate, and are mainly meat with few bones immediately excite both the wife and the chemist who runs the lab (Renato Romano, Dorian Gray 1970) are extremely excited at the economic possibilities offered by this new breed of bird. The husband, however, is utterly horrified and ends up battering them to death with a hammer and feeding the remains to his other chickens. Some sources have suggested that David Lynch may have been partially inspired by this material when making his debut feature Eraserhead (1977).
Given how much La Morte Ha Fatto L’Uovo deviates from the standard giallo format for much of its length, it is perhaps something of a surprise to discover that many of the movie’s loose ends are actually resolved in the third and final act.
In a series of ironic twists, Gina Lollobrigida learns of her husband’s assignations with a series of prostitutes at the motel and decides to surprise him by adopting the guise of one of these women and surprising him at his room. It further transpires that Trintignant has not in fact killed anyone but rather staged an elaborate pageant where he lives out his fantasy of murdering his wife, something he cannot bring himself to do except at the end when he tries to engineer her demise rather than do it himself. The meeting between the husband and wife has been stage-managed by Jean Sobieski in collusion with Ewa Aulin with the aim being that Lollobrigida’s murder by the former is blamed on her spouse. Unfortunately for them, he manages to remove the evidence and escape from the police, bringing the body back to the processing plant where the conspirators will be incriminated in a completely different set of circumstances. A final irony has Trintignant fall prey to the booby trap he devised for his wife just as he has discovered that the identity of those who set him up. He ends up literally chicken feed. During these final scenes Questi does a very creditable job of creating the type of tension seen in more conventional gialli.
For open-minded viewers, Giulio Questi’s work is one of those few motion pictures for which repeated viewings are essential in order to successfully make sense of the proceedings and to appreciate its more esoteric features.
Questi is well served by an excellent cast. Of particular note is Jean-Louis Trintignant, then establishing himself as a superstar of French cinema following the success of Claude Lelouch’s romantic drama Un Homme et une Femme (1966), looking suitably disorientated the alienated hero. Here aged 40, Italian sex symbol still looks ravishing in various states of undress. She very effectively conveys both the ambitious and shrewish nature of her character, together with her growing sexual frustration in a loveless marriage. Swedish starlet Ewa Aulin, meanwhile, provides tantalising glimpses of the barely suppressed bitterness and resentment brewing below her almost child-like exterior.
Production values for La Morte Ha Fatto L’Uovo are above average for this type of venture. Dario Di Palma’s fluid photography adds considerable lustre to the proceedings, suggesting the picture was far better resourced than was the case, while the design for the sterile and futuristic processing plant by Sergio Canevari (Antefatto 1970) is an impressively ambitious and threatening creation. Special mention should be made of the posters produced by Bruno Pippa and Paolo Zancuoghi and which litter the screen. These are strikingly executed and add considerably to the unique visual tone of the work.
The majority of Giulio Questi’s subsequent work seems to have been restricted to television, where he has served as both writer and director.
Franco Arcalli, meanwhile, continued to work steadily as both a film editor and screenwriter up until his death in 1984. His credits in the former capacity include Valerio Zurlini’s Seduto alla sua Destra (1968), Giuseppe Patroni Griffi’s Addio, Fratello Crudele (1971) and Liliana Cavani’s Il Portiere di Notte (1974), while his filmography in the latter includes Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America (1984). Sometimes he combined both roles as illustrated by Bernardo Bertolucci’s Ultimo Tango a Parigi and his next collaboration with Giulio Questi, the obscure horror item Arcana (both 1972).
©Iain McLachlan 2005