Surveying the Red Desert (1964)

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“There’s something terrible about reality and I don’t know what it is.” – Giuliana (Monica Vitti)

Modern malaise and alienation are two themes that Michelangelo Antonioni (L’Avventura [1960], La notte [1961], L’eclisse [1962]) returned to repeatedly throughout the 1960s. In Red Desert (1964), which is currently streaming on FilmStruck and available on DVD and Blu-ray from Criterion, these ideas find expression in Italy’s postwar industrial landscape and in Monica Vitti’s large eyes. Vitti was Antonioni’s muse throughout much of the decade and Red Desert provided the Roman beauty with one of her best and most iconic roles in the form of Giuliana, a woman who is desperately and deeply alone. Giuliana is married to a wealthy and providing man; they have a lovely child, many friends and even more acquaintances. Despite this, she is unable to connect with people and her surroundings. Giuliana’s isolation has plunged her into an all-consuming depression triggering bouts of paranoia that she cannot express in words so she has retreated inward. Her eyes are her only voice and they are dark, bottomless pools of emotion pleading for warmth and sympathy in a world that is often cold and incredulous.

Unlike the stark black and white topographies that dominated Antonioni’s earlier work, Red Desert pulses with color. But as its title suggests, it is a barren and desolate film that gives form to Giuliana’s anxieties and its tinted charm is manufactured. With help from art director and production designer Piero Poletto (L’eclisse [1962], The 10th Victim [1965], The Passenger [1975]) the director added additional hues to his first full-color feature by generously painting trees, grass, buildings, backdrops, furniture and even fruit in an effort to mimic Giuliana’s internal habitat. The soundtrack, an experimental electronic score composed by Giovanni Fusco and Vittorio Gelmetti, also evokes the protagonist’s inner life by including industrial and natural noise. Amid the perfectly placed props and creative framing devices that breathe life into the fog and smoke-shrouded scenery, Giuliana’s fixations and fears take shape creating a factory-filled phantasmagoria of sight and sound.

There is very little dialogue in the film, which was typical of Antonioni’s work. Unlike the witty and vivacious back-and-forth comedies of Howard Hawks or Woody Allen populated by characters that are constantly sharing their thoughts, Antonioni’s existential dramas emphasized our inability to communicate. In an obituary memorializing the director after his death in 2007, I wrote that he was able to, “Embrace the mystery of life that so many other artists, directors and human beings run away from or try to avoid and fill up with noise. Appreciating the silence in life is essential to appreciating the work of Antonioni…I admire well-written dialogue, but the real world around me has always been rather silent. People might chat about life, work and family but it is often just surface nonsense with very little substance to it. Real relationships are hard to foster…We seem to be naturally guarded creatures who roam the world alone and finally die alone, no matter how deep our relationships are with friends and family. Michelangelo Antonioni understood this like no other director I’ve ever encountered.”

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Giuliana: Are you a leftist or a rightist?
Corrado: Why do you ask such a question? Are you interested in politics?
Giuliana: Good Lord, no. I was just wondering.
Corrado: It’s like asking, “What do you believe in?” Those are big words, Giuliana, that call for precise answers. Deep down… one doesn’t really know what one believes in. One believes in humanity… in a certain sense. A little less in justice. A little more in progress. One believes in socialism… perhaps. What matters is to act as one thinks right—right for oneself and for others. In other words, with a clean conscience. Mine is at peace. Does that answer your question?
Giuliana: That’s some bunch of words you strung together.

Throughout the film, Giuliana tries to convey her inner struggles to family, friends and finally one of her husband’s visiting business associates played by British actor Richard Harris (This Sporting Life [1963]). Harris, whose dialogue was dubbed in Italian, plays Corrado, a traveling industrialist who seems to understand Giuliana’s plight better than anyone. The two are instantly drawn to one another and the sexual tension they share is palpable, but at first Giuliana resists her urges in an attempt to remain loyal to her husband and child. When they do consummate their relationship, it is an awkward encounter made particularly uncomfortable due to Giuliana’s obvious distress. She is losing her tenuous grip on reality and seeking a firm shoulder to cry on, a real friend, but Corrado seeks something else. She ultimately succumbs to his desires but the couple’s lovemaking is forced, crude and clumsy. The emptiness of their union only pushes Giuliana further towards the edge of an abyss.

One of the film’s strengths is its juxtaposition of images that awe and repel in equal measure, a skill that is often evident in the work of Italian directors such as Federico Fellini (8 ½ [1964], Juliet of the Spirits [1965], Spirits of the Dead [1968]) and Dario Argento (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage [1970], Deep Red [1975], Suspiria [1977]) who made glorious art out of brutal murder. In 1964, Antonini expressed his admiration of the unexpected beauty found in the industrialized world, which he skillfully captures in Red Desert. Smoke stacks spew toxic yellow fumes and waterways are contaminated by black oil and gray ash. Giuliana wanders through this poisonous terrain in a bright green coat that suggests life emerging in a dead world. At times she appears to be the only living thing in the film, this is particularly apparent during a stunning scene that takes place after a party at a bay-side shack that is interrupted when a diseased laden ship docks nearby. As the party guests flee in distress, a billowy mist swallows them all and Giuliana silently observes as her friends and lovers appear to morph into ghosts. At that moment, Red Desert becomes a horror film and our heroine flees from the scene attempting to outrun monsters that only she can see.

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Giuliana’s son: Why is that smoke yellow?
Giuliana: Because it’s poisonous.
Giuliana’s son: You mean if a little birdie flies there, it’ll die?
Giuliana: The little birdies know by now. They don’t fly there anymore.

Today, Red Desert’s strong environmental message is particularly timely and can be appreciated as an important predecessor to Todd Haynes Safe (1995). The female protagonists in both films are dealing with internal crisis’s while external forces may or may not be contributing to their distress. As political leaders and politicians argue how to best save our fragile planet, it is a challenge to remain optimistic about the future. 52-years later the profoundly troubled and mute figure of Giuliana remains a potent symbol of contemporary angst and ecological fears.

Kimberly Lindbergs Save Save

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