Following a terse telephone call to his girlfriend in which he tells her they can no longer be together, writer Bernard retreats to an isolated, perpetually gray and windswept town dominated by the lake at its centre – hardly the kind of place to go get away from it all.
Requesting the same room as last year from the hotel manager, it soon becomes apparent that Bernard has unfinished business in the place in the form of hotel chambermaid Tilde. The sight of her coat triggers pleasant memories – think Proustian madeleine – but she herself proves to be curiously, conspicuously absent in the flesh.
Bernard's inquiries as to her whereabouts produce non-committal answers from the hotel manager that sustain his dreams, until the town chemist, a hunchback, reveals the truth – Tilde is dead, an apparent suicide drowned in the lake.
Haunted by this revelation of loss, Bernard has the sense that something about it does not ring true. The Tilde he remembers was vivacious, hardly inclined to suicide. Digging deeper against the marked hostility of most of the townsfolk, but aided by the hunchback – who may of course have an agenda all of his own – Bernard gradually unearths the truth about his lost love and what befell her...
The graveyard in the woods
During the interregnum between Bava's Blood and Black Lace and Argento's The Bird with the Crystal Plumage a number of directors tried their hands at the giallo. Most approached it squarely as a popular genre, seeking to put a new yellow gloss on old noir and Hitchcock models. A few however veered into more modernist and arthouse territory, most notably Luigi Bazzoni and Franco Rossellini here and Giulio Questi – who actually also has a co-writing credit – with Death Laid an Egg.
The funeral procession
Unlike Antonioni's more determinedly anti-giallo Blow Up from the same period, 1966-1967, these are, however, films which have never received much attention from the critical establishment, with what recognition there exists coming from some of more adventurous and discerning cult scholars like Craig Ledbetter and Adrian Luther-Smith and his Italian collaborators.
Examples of the Bazzoni and Rossellini's absolute control over their medium - everything is in here, with a purpose
If then, to paraphrase Ledbetter, Death Laid an Egg is Godard had directed a giallo while on acid, La Donna del lago / Lady in the Lake might be similarly glossed as the filone's riposte to Resnais's Last Year at Marienbad with a soupçon of Dreyer's Vampyr thrown in. In other words, it's a challenge to the unprepared viewer in its refusal to provide any easy ontology of images / clues with past, present, real and imaginary states co-existing on the same plane and intermingling seamlessly.
A black glove moment in a non-black glove example of the form
Although the film-makers use the voice-over extensively in adapting what one assumes must have been a relatively interior source novel by Giovanni Comisso the device never feels heavy-handed. Rather, what Bernard does not say / think proves as important as what he does, with both also contributing to the totality of a mise-en-scene with which what we don't see at all or are given a partial view of are as important / significant as anything else.
Note, for instance, the parallel between the opening shots of Bernard, back to us and mirrored in the glass so as to be almost a ghostly superimposition, and of the figure he sees wearing Tilde's distinctive chequered coat through a shop window.
Through / in a glass, darkly
Or take the way in which the vital reason behind Tilde's disappearance and the silence surrounding it is revealed not by one of the photographs Bernard scrutinises endlessly but by the hunchback's suggestively negative image of her, against which the two men are then themselves almost silhouetted.
The rhetoric of the image
Or the distaste that Bernard develops for the fish he is served – fish from the lake that trigger too many uncomfortable thoughts, poisoned as they are by Tilde's death.
An astonishingly beautiful and rich film that rewards every viewing with new subtleties and nuances, La Donna del lago lives up to its billing in Luther-Smith's Blood and Black Lace book as “a masterpiece” and demonstrates once more just what could be done with the form if more serious critics and popular audiences were willing to truly attempt to engage without prejudice.
Thanks to Paul for enabling me to see this rare classic, and for doing such a good job on the subtitles as well.