Bright Lights Film Journal

A Brutal Nobility: Painting Death in <em>The House with Laughing Windows</em> (Pupi Avati, 1976)

“Inherent to defamiliarization or riddling is, of course, a process of refamiliarization: as the film proceeds, we wish to see the strange normalized, the riddle answered. But in The House with Laughing Windows – particularly with its heavy dependence on art historical imagery – Avati shatters this two-step process into an infinite and unsolvable logjam.”

Championed as one of the great giallo films by horror luminary Eli Roth, Pupi Avati’s The House with Laughing Windows (La Casa dalle finestre che ridono, 1976) does not offer much in the way of traditional giallo iconography. What it lacks in readily identifiable motifs, however, it makes up for in a near suffocating overabundance of atmosphere.

A typical giallo novel

The roots of giallo – translated simply as “yellow” – lie in the yellow-covered mystery pulps published by Mondadori from the 1920s onwards, which were often translations of stories by Edgar Wallace and Agatha Christie. These viscera-heavy films straddle crime and horror, and are marked by their own distinct iconography. Aside from the signature appearance of the black-gloved hands of the killer, gialli are predominantly marked by an emphasis on graphic sex and violence. In recent years, the rise of boutique DVD distribution companies like Blue Underground in the US and Shameless Screen Entertainment in the UK has introduced many once-lost key gialli to a highly receptive new cult audience, further consolidating the reputation of its major auteurs such as Mario and Lamberto Bava, Umberto Lenzi, Sergio Martino, Lucio Fulci, Luciano Ercoli, and, of course, Dario Argento.

Perhaps even more than Argento’s famous entries in this cult Italian film category – particularly his animal trilogy (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Four Flies on Grey Velvet, and Cat O’ Nine Tails) – The House with Laughing Windows hinges on a systematic process of defamiliarization taken to its most perverse extreme. While associated most readily with Russian formalism (particularly Viktor Shklovsky and his foundational 1925 book Theory of Prose), in giallo defamiliarization adheres less stringently to formalist conceptions. It is far closer to Carlo Ginzburg’s sassier interpretation that involves not merely just “making things strange,” but an active process of “riddling.” Uncomfortable with Shklovsky’s tendency to dehistoricize, Ginzburg takes a typically colorful journey back in time to Marcus Aurelius and suggests that, “in order to see things, we must first look at them as if they had no meaning, as if they were a riddle.”1

This advice could have been custom-made for approaching giallo cinema. Ginzburg’s compatriot Dario Argento’s Four Flies on Grey Velvet and The Bird with the Crystal Plumage in particular make the idea of the initially hollow riddle explicit: the names of the films themselves function not so much as mysteries or enigmas as they do almost childlike questions waiting for a punch line. With The House with Laughing Windows, Avati’s title works in a similar way: its enigmas rise to the surface before the film even starts (how can a house have laughing windows?).

The opening sequence demonstrates how powerful even the simplest of visual “riddles” can be from this perspective. A discordant, minimalist soundtrack accompanies a series of sepia-toned shapes that initially suggest an abstract painting rather than immediately identifiable figures. It is only when we hear a scream that the riddle is “solved”: we are watching a man being tortured. Strange angles and shots – shown in dreamlike slow motion – construct images that jigsaw together an extreme vision of human suffering. It becomes clear that what we have been watching all along is knives piercing flesh, organs being exposed. Rather than objectifying the trauma or distancing the spectator from the events on screen, this process of riddling catches us in its visceral grasp, unaware of what it is we are viewing until we are already accomplices.

Over this sequence – more Kenneth Anger than Dario Argento – a mechanized male voice recites the following poem:

My colours
My colours, they run red hot in my veins
Soft, so soft
My colours are soft like the fall
Hot like fresh blood
The liquid flows down my arms
My colours
The yellow decay
My colours flow through my veins
My colours in my veins
Creating a brutal nobility
God, my colours will paint death clearly
Death, purity, death
Holding me at their mercy
My colours
Yellow, soft, dripping from their eyes
Purity of death
My colours

As this last line is recited, the camera pulls back and shows a young man, slashed and torn, hanging from his arms in front of a vaguely naturalistic landscape with a silhouette of a tree behind him. The image is suddenly and inescapably a tableaux vivant of the martyrdom of St. Sebastian. There is little need to emphasize just how important St. Sebastian is to this film, but it is worth reiterating precisely how this image is introduced. Just as the saint’s posthumous identity has spanned from the patron saint of lace makers to pestilence, from being a middle-aged (and somewhat haggard) soldier to a young, beautiful gay icon, his depiction in Avati’s introduction encompasses both the sacred and the profane, the archaic and the modern, the pure and the dangerous, and the abstracted and the real. What begins as tone and shape becomes suffering flesh, which in turn morphs into an instantly recognizable iconographic point of reference.

It is within this tension that Avati both formally and thematically houses the film’s propelling dynamic. Inherent to defamiliarization or riddling is, of course, a process of refamiliarization: as the film proceeds, we wish to see the strange normalized, the riddle answered. But in The House with Laughing Windows – particularly with its heavy dependence on art historical imagery – Avati shatters this two-step process into an infinite and unsolvable logjam.

How can a house have laughing windows?

The story follows Stefano (Lino Capolicchio), who is hired by Solmi (Bob Tonelli) – the dwarf-mayor of an isolated southern Italian village – to restore an unfinished fresco of St. Sebastian in the local church. It was painted by local artist Bruno Legnani (Tonino Corazzari), who committed suicide before its completion: Solmi hopes the restored work will become a tourist attraction for the small town. Stefano is told that Lengani “suffered from a dark soul” and was often called the “painter of agonies”; and already unnerved, Stefano finds the village increasingly strange. Upon his arrival he almost immediately begins receiving anonymous phone calls demanding he leave and insisting he not touch the fresco. His friend Antonio (Giulio Pizzirani) warns him of strange goings-on, and after being inexplicably thrown out of the town’s only hotel, Stefano moves into the crumbling house of an elderly female paraplegic on the advice of a local priest (Eugene Walter). Beginning a relationship with the young schoolteacher Francesca (Francesca Marciano), who has also recently moved to the village, Stefano investigates Legnani’s history and discovers through the local drunk Coppola (Gianni Cavina) that Legnani had two sisters. Stefano learns that the sisters would murder and torture models for Legnani to paint, and Stefano believes the two women in the church’s fresco with St. Sebastian are in fact Legnani’s sisters. As his investigation leads him to Legnani’s house – the title stemming from the large smiling mouths Legnani painted on the outside windows) – the violence increasingly spirals out of control around him, and the close relationship between murder, art, and identity is revealed in the film’s concluding twist.

Snuff painting

Guido Reni, St Sebastian (circa 1615)

Mikel Koven has emphasized the diegetic privileging of this link between “artistic” and “real” death, even suggesting that “the timing of Avati’s film coincides with the appearance of Snuff in 1976, so the echoes may be intentional. By changing the artistic medium from filmmaking to painting (specifically fresco painting), Avati seems to be suggesting that regardless of the presumed contemporary nature of these snuff stories, they are – anachronistically – as old as Italy’s artistic traditions.”2 While certainly true to some degree, the focus on this alone underplays the very deliberate utilization of the St. Sebastian figure as a key visual motif throughout the film. The first image of the saint shown in the opening sequence (and later mirrored with the bodies of both Francesca and Lidio in the attic of the supposedly paraplegic Legnani sister) mimics a familiar pose of the saint as shown in Guido Reni’s painting St Sebastian (circa 1615).

Early in the film, the fresco in the church maintains this similar (although not identical) basic composition. But as Stefano’s restoration work continues, it is his uncovering of the two women at Sebastian’s side that shows a significant deviation from historical representations of the saint.

Stefano reveals a violent twist to traditional St Sebastian imagery

While uncommon, the basic compositional relations of Avati’s St. Sebastian fresco are hardly new. There are some historical instances where the saint is shown with the Holy Women (most often St. Irene and her servant tending his wounds) at each side, with him standing in the middle: for instance, in Bernardo Strozzi’s Saint Sebastian Tended by Saint Irene and Her Maid (c. 1631-36). But it is not only the Holy Women who have been historically positioned on either side of the St. Sebastian figure; for example, in Hans Paur’s 15th-century German woodcut The Martyrdom of St Sebastian (c. 1472), the archers who inflicted Sebastian’s wounds have also been compositionally positioned in a similar manner.

Bernardo Strozzi, Saint Sebastian Tended by Saint Irene and Her Maid (c. 1631–6)

Hans Paur, The Martydom of St. Sebastian (circa 1472)

While similar to Avati’s fresco, these St. Sebastian compositions are hardly ubiquitous. Seventeenth-century images of St. Irene and her servant tending to St. Sebastian were predominantly composed in pieta, or featured him slumped, lying, or hung up by one arm, with the women usually either hovering above or both to one side. As is obvious by their malign and sadistic expressions, it is clear that Lengani’s sisters are positioned to effectively “trap” the Sebastian figure within the torturous frame of their bodies. By doing this, in his painting Legnani combines the otherwise morally and functionally opposed roles of the archers (who inflict Sebastian’s wounds) and the Holy Women (who nurse those wounds).

This merger of the Holy Women with the archers allows Avati to expose what from an art historical perspective is a fascinating yet unspoken assumption. In the Legnani painting, it is clear from their vicious expressions of glee, the way the painting is shot, and the priest’s foreshadowing observation that “Saint Sebastian’s killers seem to be enjoying it” that the women are sticking the knives into Sebastian. The amalgamation of the archers with the Holy Women therefore challenges the very way these types of religious scenes in paintings have been viewed: by defamiliarizing what is an otherwise assumed scene of “Good Women” nursing a “Good Man,” Avati permits the scene to be viewed in a far darker – indeed, blasphemous – manner than St. Sebastian’s traditional non-secular legacy has permitted. This can be demonstrated by looking at a remarkable rendering of the scene by José de Ribera:

José de Ribera, San Sebastiano curato dalle Pie donne (17th Century)

The “riddle” House with Laughing Windows indirectly asks de Ribera’s painting is this: How do we know the Holy Women are taking the arrows out rather than sticking them in? In the case of de Ribera, the answer relies entirely on faith rather than the action within the painting itself: there are massive intertextual assumptions about the broader teachings of Christianity at stake here. This painting is not accompanied by the deranged cackles of the monstrous Legnani sisters, but, taken on its own merit, could arguably be seen to make ambiguous the directional force (and therefore moral intent) of the women’s hands.

Art restoration as investigation

This is not to suggest anything as heretical as St. Irene stuck arrows into St. Sebastian. But it exposes the fact that ambivalence can exist even within the most sacred and seemingly straightforward of art. This is critical not only to The House with Laughing Windows, but as Mikel Koven has pointed out, to giallo as a broader category: in fact, he defines it as nothing less than “a cinema of ambivalence.”3

The fluidity of gender and its artistic representation: Legnani’s self-portrait

While there are striking images in the film that blur assumptions on gender – the self-portrait of Legnani with his head painted onto the body of a reclining nude woman for one – there are less overt suggestions that equally drive this notion of gender fluidity throughout the film. For instance, both Francesca and Lidio’s bodies are shown hanging in the Legnani’s sisters’ attic mimicking the St. Sebastian figure in the opening sequence: corpses shift between male and female and back again. The casting of Eugene Walter as the unnamed androgynous priest explicitly references his appearance as Mother Superior in Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits (1965), and his camp persona also adds Avati’s gender blurring strategies (Bill Goldstein at the New York Times once described Walter by saying “think Truman Capote without the fame”). This muddling of traditional gender binaries, of course, also neatly aligns the film with queer readings of St. Sebastian, but ultimately this is only one of many representational shards produced in the explosion of Avati’s aesthetic and conceptual blitzkrieg.

  1. Carlo Ginzburg, “Making Things Strange: The Prehistory of a Literary Device,” in Wooden Eyes: Nine Reflections on Distance. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001: 7. []
  2. Mikel J. Koven, La Dolce Morte: Vernacular Cinema and the Italian Giallo Film. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2006: 120. []
  3. Koven, 58. []