“This is not a game anymore.”
Anyone thinking Death Laid an Egg might settle down after its exceedingly erratic opening would be sorely mistaken. Commencing with a microscopic depiction of mutable organisms, the film then advances views of freeway traffic intercut with a roll-call of random characters prepping for the day: combing their hair, getting dressed, squeezing out a copious amount of toothpaste, one man placing a plastic bag over his head. From there, while this 1968 Italian doozy may find its basic narrative footing, its commitment to utter madness never wanes.
Directed by Giulio Questi, who wrote the script with Franco Arcalli, Death Laid an Egg (La morte ha fatto l’uovo) takes superficial shape as a soft-core giallo, with sexually-primed treachery and apparent black-gloved, blade-wielding murders. At the center of this twisted tale is Marco (Jean-Louis Trintignant), who, when he isn’t occupied with a perilous procession of women lured to his hotel room, operates an automated chicken farm with his devious wife, Anna (Gina Lollobrigida). And when he isn’t doing that, he is charmed by his beautiful mistress, Gabrielle (Ewa Aulin), who is as underhanded as everyone else. Further conflicts, with varying degrees of relevance, include a consortium of angry, ousted factory workers (supplying a trifling plot-point concerning class warfare), and the arrival of Mondaini (Jean Sobieski), Marco’s dubious personal and professional rival.
How these assorted dramas unfold is quite the trip. Questi relishes in the film’s absurdities, getting away with the craziness on the grounds of a contemporary art-film aesthetic, one realized by rapid, disjunctive editing, delirious camerawork, and an unabashed exploitation of sinuous reality. Even if it doesn’t ultimately pay off, this surreal quality sustains a general engagement. Marco goes out prowling one night, and in the next cut, he suddenly wakes in bed. How much of what preceded was a dream, if anything, and when and how did it start? It doesn’t really matter, as Death Laid an Egg continually hovers in this vacillating zone of dreams, desires, and concrete certainties. Cues occasionally suggest a definitive truth, but by the following scene, the film is abundant with provisional test-tubes, a scarf riddled with inscrutable symbols, chickens in binders (for cataloging, of course), and a mutated poultry brood described by Anna as “twitching brains…just a torso…without head and wings.”
Despite the caliber of their talent seen elsewhere at the time—she in Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell, he in The Man Who Lies—neither Lollobrigida nor Trintignant act exceptionally well here. She slides on an uninspired, standard sexuality, which is only given some stimulation when it’s directed at Aulin, the blatant sensual object of her attention as well as Marco’s and the camera’s. Trintignant, impassive and vacant, isn’t much better. However, forgetting for a moment that Marco seems to be a brutal butcher (seems being the operative word), he nevertheless remains a sympathetic protagonist, if for no other reason than he often appears as baffled as we are. Routed by a situational paranoia, his anxieties, like ours, derive more from a relentless sweeping oddity than one specific threat. Questi and Arcalli provide some slight impetus for what Marco and the others do—he sees Gabrielle as a liberating escape from Anna, who represents dispassionate indulgence, while Anna reacts against what she decries as pervasive fraud, illusion, and arduous conventionality (she can rest assured, there is scarcely anything conventional about Death Laid an Egg)—but nothing can account for the film’s overriding sexual tension, its mania, and its ubiquitous formal eccentricity.
Set to the tune of Bruno Maderna’s appropriately discordant jazz score, and joined by a series of elliptical transitions, Questi, editor Franco Arcalli, and cinematographer Dario Di Palma (nephew of the great Carlo Di Palma), assemble a puzzling pattern of peculiar locations and incongruous patchworks, from a freakishly bustling chicken hub and an arbitrary cornfield, to an anomalous fiery car crash montage. If it had to be reduced to one generic marker, Death Laid an Egg does figure as offhand giallo hybrid, peppered with familiar motifs of the form: anonymous letters, apprehensive close ups of hands and faces, leather gloves against supple flesh, wigs, tape recorders, a provocative comingling of sex and violence, and the omnipresence of animal life (so many chickens!). Otherwise, though, it becomes something else, something Questi fashions together with swinging La Dolce Vita sex games, modish clothing, economic ethics, mad science research, and artsy philosophical musings. It’s a lot to pack into one film, and it doesn’t always fit as it should, but much like Questi’s similarly strange Django Kill… If You Live, Shoot! (1967), there is enough intriguing randomness to support a cursory interest, simply for the sheer unpredictability of it all.