Red Desert occupies a curious place in Michelangelo Antonioni’s canon. Made in 1964 as a French-Italian coproduction, it’s wedged between the international success of Blow Up (1967) and the trilogy of L’Avventura (1960), La Notte (1961), and L’Eclisee (1962), which most observers consider the director’s greatest achievement. Like those latter films, it features Monica Vitti as a modern woman confronted by a spiritually bereft world of shallow relationships, beautiful but meaningless landscapes, and existential angst. It is also the first film in which Antonioni employs the telephoto lens for flattening effects. Most important, though, is its extreme use of color (it was his first color film), a fact much noted – and not always approved – by critics of the time. The film has had only middling approval even from many Antonioni fans, who reject the color manipulations as torturous and even crude, and the pacing as equally torturous. Like many a "classic," this one hasn’t always been available in decent form to allow for a proper assessment. Image Entertainment’s new DVD features an excellent widescreen transfer, and the film’s virtues are as apparent, if not as plentiful, as its drawbacks.
Red Desert’s credits roll over undefined shapes covered in a choking yellow industrial fog. When the credits end, the scene sharpens into a series of cuts showing different views of a slate-gray tableaux of factories in the rain. In this grim, rainy world, the people – factory workers – are as gray as the road, the sky, and the buildings, with two exceptions. A woman in a bright green coat is walking along the same gray road, accompanied by her small son in a bright red suit. This is the first indication that the woman, Giuliana (Vitti), is somehow apart from the dreary, hopeless world around her.
This apartness is to some extent the result of personal problems. After a car wreck, Giuliana is hospitalized with a nervous breakdown and tries to commit suicide. We don’t see these events, only hear about them in retrospect. Giuliana is married to an engineer who comprehends little of her intense, and tormented, inner life, causing her to seek solace in the arms of businessman Corrado Zeller (Richard Harris). True to Antonioni’s elliptical style, there’s little in the way of physical connection between these two (or between her and her husband, for that matter); it’s mostly implied until a scene at the end of the film where Giuliana’s level of desperation drives her into his arms, briefly.
Antonioni uses color throughout to tantalize the viewer with higher possibilities. While the scenes set in the factories are mostly an undifferentiated gray, suddenly a splash of deep red will appear on a huge pipe in the foreground, as if the kind of depersonalization the factory represents can’t entirely overcome the life principle. But even seemingly positive colors can be threatening in this world. In an early scene in which Corrado and Giuliana’s husband are standing next to a smokestack, the frame is overwhelmed by vast plumes of white smoke that pour out all around them. Antonioni’s telephoto lens reduces the two to barely visible figures in one of the longest long shots in recent memory.
Most colorful is Giuliana’s inner life, which the director visualizes intermittently. In a sequence in which she tells her ailing son a story, the film moves entirely into her fantasy of a young girl on a beautiful bright beach, enjoying the sounds of the waves and a distant aria that seduces her though she never locates its source. This pleasurable world, it seems, can only exist in story, and soon enough Giuliana is back in the real world in a state of nervous chaos.
On the down side, the pacing is indeed murderous, with scenes allowed to linger past their dramatic point (which no doubt is the point). For some, Giuliana’s constant state of existential despair and wild ramblings will grate rather than elicit sympathy. There’s a diverting "orgy sequence," but only Antonioni could shoot an orgy in which nobody has sex. (They spend most of their time chatting, cutting up, and laughingly dismantling the shack in which the "orgy" takes place.) And it doesn’t help that Antonioni’s obsession with atmosphere must have distracted him from developing the other characters; even the often formidable Richard Harris is just another fixture in the director’s mise-en-scene.
On the plus sign, Antonioni’s visual manipulations make this otherwise arid exercise in period existentialism (all the rage in the early 1960s) watchable and often intriguing. When everything is gray, the sudden eruption of color in a scene takes on new meaning. The other virtue here is Monica Vitti, again proving her power as an actress. She’s luminous in an often thankless role few actresses would even attempt. (How many ways, and for how long, can you impart angst?) She’s convincingly desperate in scenes where that’s called for, but also moving in the scenes with her son. She speaks the words of a madwoman, but also tells poignant personal truths that resonate beyond the frame: "I’d like all the people who ever loved me here, around me, like a wall."
Red Desert is now available on DVD from Image Entertainment. The disc includes filmographies of Antonioni, Vitti, and Harris, and chapter search. Suggested retail price: $24.99.