The films of Michelangelo Antonioni are popularly referred to as explorations of ennui. New York Times critic Steven Holden once referred to L’Avventura, La Notte, and L’Eclisse as a “trilogy on modernity and its discontents.” Yet in these films, and especially Red Desert, which Holden refers to as their “coda”, there exists a search for place and meaning that manifests an active visual world, full of Antonioni’s groundbreaking aesthetic risks. These films might be about boredom, but they are not boring films.
Red Desert was Antonioni’s first color film, and its perspective on modernity is filtered through Giuliana, the neurotic lead character played by Monica Vitti. The stochastic plot is a series of events rooted in her fears and fantasies of the physical world. Under Antonioni’s direction, Ravenna is transformed into a city overwhelmed by industry. Oil rigs and chemical plants dominate the landscape, and any nature that appears from underneath the smoke and ash is forever transformed. Manipulating the colors of his locations and sets, and using Technicolor processes to achieve an often muted and grey palette, the director presents the celluloid itself as reflecting the clash of nature and industry.
Giuliana does have a domestic retreat from the factory world. Although her husband Ugo (Carlo Chionetti) is a factory boss and is characterized by growing the labor and machinery around him, Giuliana’s child (Valerio Bartoleschi) and comfortable home provide a domain that she could embrace to escape her neuroses. Despite these options, Giuliana wanders, fearful and unfulfilled, through the environment that confounds her. The film’s discontinuous editing and off-kilter cinematography contribute to the character’s (and therefore the audience’s) sense of dislocation and unbelonging.
When Giuliana meets Ugo’s friend Corrado (Richard Harris), we feel the pull of convention—beautiful, unhappy woman meets handsome, wandering man. However, as they circle each other, recognizing a mutual feeling of being unmoored, it becomes clear that Corrado moves forward to deal sensibly with being unsettled, while Giuliana’s search for place is habitually unsuccessful and carries much higher stakes.
The back story associated with her emotional instability is progressively disclosed within the film. A car crash, hospitalization, and other concrete events are referred to but not illustrated. Antonioni keeps us in a confused present tense, which encourages us to relate to Giuliana’s neuroses through these inferences and our own traumas. We share her search for meaning and her subjective reality via distortions and interruptions both visual (out of focus shots, unbalanced frames) and aural (electronic music and industrial noise).
Unsurprisingly, the two most memorable scenes in the film are both removed from the dominant, desolate expanses. In a shack by a jetty over contaminated water, several characters congregate for food and conversation. One by one, they all move into a small bedroom, the walls of which are painted a vivid red. Antonioni uses this powerful visual contrast to reinforce the momentary tonal shift of the story.
Even as the dialogue turns a bit bawdy, there is an innocence to the characters’ rediscovery of human interaction. For a short time, Giuliana, Corrado and the others reclaim the value of intimacy. In another scene similarly keyed to Giuliana’s emotional state, she tells her bed-ridden son a story about a girl who spends her days at a beach. The film illustrates the story with an extended sequence of this character, who exists outside of the main plot but is almost certainly a projection of Giuliana’s inner desire. Because the fantasy takes place beyond the “real” factory world, the colors of the beach, ocean and rocks are unusually vibrant.
Interestingly, Antonioni is said to have manipulated nearly all of the colors in the film except for those in this scene. If true, then this is a great example of the power of a film to recalibrate our own perception of the environment. We have been so immersed in the factory world that an untouched, natural beach seems idealistic and out of reach.
Despite her psychological escapes, Giuliana never finds her idyllic place. However, Antonioni’s bleak vision is not necessarily an indictment of modernity. As he says in an archival interview included on the DVD, “there’s something inexorable about progress.” This is a neutral statement, but its implication is that we need to adjust to the changing world or be left behind like Giuliana.
Red Desert does not rid us of our ennui, but it does engage the senses and heighten our awareness of where we are and what we’re doing. As an existential work about the march of modernity, the film does not age—it instead becomes a canvas for changing states. Presently, as oil continues to gush into the Gulf of Mexico, the film seems all too relevant.
In keeping with its standard of excellence, Criterion offers several special features on the DVD edition of Red Desert. These include a booklet with essays and the director’s writings and interviews, archival interviews with Antonioni and Vitti, black and white and color dailies from the production, and two short documentaries directed by Antonioni.
The best feature is an eloquent audio commentary by Italian film scholar David Forgacs, who has an authoritative knowledge of Antonioni. Forgacs elucidates many of the film’s ambiguities, but he doesn’t try to have the last word on the film’s meaning. His insightful observations complement the tone of the film.