First, a contradiction: deafening Ennio Morricone music screams in over the title card. A promise of quiet immediately dashed, the flippant tone established at the outset. And then: shirtless Franco Nero tied to a chair in a modernist flat, the colors and lines à la Mondrian, the gentle torture courtesy of a prowling Vanessa Redgrave. So begins Elio Petri’s caustic 1968 thriller, with Nero’s frustrated artist already under attack by the forces of femininity and commerce, both embodied and entwined in Redgrave’s bottom-line gallery agent, Flavia. Naturally, he’s fantasizing about killing her.
The opening fever-dream awakens to a calmer register just briefly enough to sketch out the basics. Nero’s Leonardo needs some peace to get his work back on track so Flavia can keep the upper-crust buyers in Milan and New York flush with fresh product. A country retreat is in order. But the first villa comes pre-equipped with an exhibition and the accompanying hangers-on intent on a good deal (“I admire your work…and it’s a good investment”). A second villa must be acquired if anything is to be done, though the murder of the town’s “nympho” countess 25 years prior on the same grounds proves a more supernatural hindrance to the artistic process.
Petri builds this film like his character paints: hurried and unstable, rushing from one idea or genre to the next and erasing any line of thought that bores him. The result is a frenzied canvas, borrowing the fetishistic violence of gialli, the spasmodic cutting of 60s Resnais, and the jaundiced pop eye of Godard. It’s the latter mode that remains the strongest through-line from start to finish. Though the film shifts constantly, Petri’s cynicism about the successful artist, firmly ensconced in bourgeois respectability and comforts but utterly self-pitying in the face of market demands, remains at the center. Nero’s increasing attachment to the dead countess, repeatedly and rather grossly described as a nubile sex-kitten by the town’s lecherous old men, pushes his murderous urges into action. He enacts a misogynistic purgation by killing his agent-cum-lover—a double threat to his fragile ego—and feeds his violence back into his art.
The final twist of the knife, however, is all Petri’s. Reality shifts yet again, Flavia shows up alive, and Leonardo is hauled off, screaming, to the nearest padded-wall institution. The money(wo)men win. Our artist hero is last seen receiving his ration of porno magazines and chocolate, the necessary fuel he needs to pump out miniature works to be sold off without his knowledge, presumably fetching the highest prices yet. Carting off the latest batch of goods, Flavia gets the last word: “It’s beautiful here, I almost envy him.” And why shouldn’t she? He’s finally found some quiet.
A Quiet Place in the Country plays Aug 28th and 29th, on 35mm, at the Northwest Film Forum.