Elio Petri, 1969
Starring: Franco Nero, Vanessa Redgrave
Leonardo, a painter, is going through a creative slump and is tormented by violent nightmares. He spies an old villa out in the country and becomes obsessed with the idea of owning it. His agent and lover, Flavia, eventually gives in and purchases the house, though it needs a lot of work and seems to intentionally drive her away. Meanwhile, Leonardo begins painting again, but is transfixed by a legend of the house’s previous owner, a beautiful and promiscuous young woman who died there in the ‘40s. She fuels his sadomasochistic fantasies, and the lines between fantasy and reality begin to blur with violent results.
This Italian-French coproduction from director Elio Petri (The 10th Victim, Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion) is relatively unique in the annals of giallo films in that it features a major international star, as well as an Italian cult star. Vanessa Redgrave and Franco Nero were a couple at the time, after their meeting on the set of Camelot (1967). Though they split after a few years together, they reunited and married in 2006. During their time as a couple in the late ‘60s, they made a series of unconventional films together, including two films with Tinto Brass: Drop-Out (1970), where a housewife meets a drifter and they go on an unusual journey together, and La vacanza (1971), about a woman sent to a mental asylum when her aristocratic lover tires of her.
Though Nero appears far more than Redgrave, they are both spectacularly over the top in A Quiet Place in the Country. This unusual film has plenty of giallo elements — it certainly would not be the last to examine a descent into madness or a painter’s violent adventures in the Italian countryside — though it is not strictly a giallo film. Based on Oliver Onions’ Victorian-set novella, The Beckoning Fair One, there are plenty of elements of Gothic and psychological horror, and it includes some surprisingly effective notes of the ghost story. For much of the film it is unclear if the Countess’s ghost is haunting Leonardo or if he is just losing his mind. The house certainly seems hostile to Flavia, causing her physical harm and driving her from the building — to the apparent bemusement of Leonardo. It is also unclear if Leonardo is vandalizing his own studio and spilling paint everywhere, or if some supernatural force is responsible. There is also an excellent seance sequence towards the end of the film that serves as the tipping point to madness.
Regardless of the explanation, Leonardo’s obsession with the Countess leads to the blurring between his fantasy world and reality, resulting in some beautiful sequences. The hallucinatory elements of this film transcend the typical giallo, but can be found in the incredibly creepy (and admittedly superior) House with the Laughing Windows, or films like The Perfume of the Lady in Black. The lovely cinematography is from Argento collaborator Luigi Kuveiller — with camera work from Fulci collaborator Ubaldo Terzano — and while there is often a lot of beauty in the many urban-set giallo films, I wish the genre had more of these rural pieces that focus on the splendor, yet inherent creepiness of pastoral Italy.
The villa is incredibly beautiful and the contrast between shots of golden wheat and the rich wood of the building with snippets of Leonardo’s paintings provides a surprising amount of tension. The paintings, from American Neo-Dadaist Jim Dine, are explosively colorful, abstract works done in primary colors, far closer to the images of blood that haunt Leonardo than to the picturesque landscape. Thematically, the film also expresses this divide between a quiet, contemplative, and creative life, and the financial demands put upon a commercially popular artist. Flavia, so viciously attacked by Leonardo’s subconscious and/or the ghost of the Countess, is the signifier of the commercial world. She wants Leonardo to be charming around potential investors and, though she obviously loves him, constantly exerts the pressure to paint, to produce. Their sexual relationship — fueled by pornography and fetishism — seems to aggravate the core of Leonardo’s mania, which is further triggered by the story of the nymphomaniac Countess.
Available on DVD, A Quiet Place in the Country comes highly recommended. A near perfect blend of giallo, ghost story, and art house film, it’s one of the most beautiful works in the giallo canon. It also boasts a fantastic score from Ennio Morricone, which blends anxiety-inducing jazz with sounds of nature, such as crickets, wind, and more. It’s also pleasantly over the top, thanks to a maniacal performance from Italy’s most handsome man, Franco Nero, who delightfully contributes to the film’s final twist. Though this might not be a true giallo and certainly has its flaws, it’s a wonderful film that shouldn’t be as neglected or ignored as it is today.