Thursday, November 10, 2011

Red Desert (1964) - Directed by Michaelangelo Antonioni

Were it not for Michaelangelo Antonioni’s early 1960’s output, he would probably make my all-time top 5 most overrated directors. As it is, he is saved from such a fate through a string of 4 films that all examine the same thing: spiritual, emotional, and relational alienation. His “alienation” trilogy of L’Avventura (1960), La Notte (1961) and L’Ecclise (1962) introduced his major themes of concern and his major muse, Monica Vitti. We tend not to include Red Desert in this grouping, but we might as well have, and called it a "quadrilogy" of sorts. In fact, I would argue that Red Desert is the culmination of the themes that he was exploring and the highest form of visual and thematic expression that he would ever achieve. In his following movies, Blow-Up (1966), Zabriskie Point (1970), The Passenger (1975), he began a decline stemming from a self-indulgent pretense that bordered on near self-parody. Can I blame him though? Where can one go after Red Desert?

Red Desert is unabashedly a pretentious film at heart, but this is not unlike many great works of art. Monica Vitti stars as Giuliana, mother of a young boy and wife of Ugo (Carlo Chionetti) who runs a huge, industrial plant, of which I’m not sure what it produces or refines, but it’s a network of steam release valves, rusted silos, and produces all kinds of waste that, along with the rest of the nearby industrial jungle, pollutes the water and air in abundance. Antonioni shot the film in northern Italy in and amongst real industrial power plants. These are real places, but they don't feel like it. They feel otherworldly. Adding to this odd dimension is the soundtrack that reminds me of the kind of blips and drones that might as well have come from the sci-fi film The Forbidden Planet (1956). But, Antonioni clearly wants us to recognize the tortured and pained reality of this world, even though green grass looks out of place in the polluted landscape.

Giuliana, we are told, had a car accident one month prior, and her husband feels that she is still in some state of shock, as he confides to fellow plant supervisor Corrado (Richard Harris). In fact, she is. We are introduced to her as she walks with her son across the wasteland around the factory. She strangely pays a man for a half-eaten sandwich, and we immediately realize that she is not right. While visiting her husband’s plant, she meets Corrado, and they soon develop a strange affair. It doesn’t involve sex at first. Rather the extent of their relationship involves confiding to each other what is eating at their souls. She opens up to Corrado and admits that in the hospital she became lost, losing touch with herself and has been unable to retrieve her soul from the proverbial abyss. Corrado is less estranged from humanity, but is fearful of the world and cannot remain still, prodded to transience. Red Desert examines their soulless existence with urgency and remorse. She cannot fathom loving anyone, nor anyone loving her. She wants to connect, but lacks the spiritual and emotional center she needs to do so. When later in the film Giuliana goes over the edge due to her son’s faking a major illness, she and Corrado are thrown together in the most dispassionate of ways in a feigned attempt at comfort.

This was Antonioni’s first film in color. Red Desert is filled with a near continual barrage of striking images, often with primary colors contrasting with bleak grays and browns. It's one of the most visually expressive films ever made. Nearly any shot could make a striking photograph or painting, something which has been noted by many. Additionally, notice the way that fog insists on being both part of the imagery and part of the enveloping malaise and disconnectedness of the characters. In fact, this is a film where the imagery and thematic/psychological elements parallel each other directly. Much like Anthony Mann’s westerns, like The Naked Spur (1953), or Kurosawa’s Dodes’ka-den (1970), Red Desert uses the environment to deeply reflect and ultimately enhance the psychosis of the characters within that environment. Red Desert’s industrial and toxic wasteland is Antonioni's fully realized metaphor for the polluted and alienated modern soul. This for me is what elevates Red Desert above all of Antonioni’s films. Although L’Avventura and others cover the same ground (poetically in fact), it appears to me that Antonioni reached his zenith of expression in Red Desert and laid down his manifesto.


Marilyn said...

Jon - I have not seen this film, though that may change very soon, but I appreciate how you burrow succinctly into what makes Antonioni a great filmmaker. I was not enamored of La Notte, feeling that he only had room for Jeanne Moreau's pain (he does his female characters justice in the first half of his career, his male characters in the second half). I am a huge fan of The Passenger, which shows how he takes up the question of identity/reality, an appropriate task for a filmmaker. Self-indulgent? Well, I don't know. I don't think there's anything wrong with a man exploring his own inner space the only way he knows how - through film

Jon said...


Thanks for the tremendous comments. What I tire of in the second half of his career, is that I don't feel like I find anything new that he is saying. I know others do. I prefer his exploration of alienation in the early 1960's, but I don't find anything after that to really grab onto. It may be a problem with me, not with the films, but that's my perspective. This one right here is my favorite for better or worse depending on how one looks at it. Your points are well stated though. Thank you for stopping by!

Joel Bocko said...

I've seen Red Desert a couple times now, and am not sure . I'm not as absorbed in the situations as I am with L'Eclisse or L'Avventura, but visually this has to be one of my favorite films - that wasted, toxic industrial landscape has to be, paradoxically, one of the most beautiful I've seen on film. But then I'm someone who enjoys wandering along streets full of abandoned factories and warehouses, so I've an odd sensibility in that sense (albeit one that Antonioni apparently shared, given this film and some of his own anecdotes).

Your review makes me really want to watch it again, and think I probably will soon - & maybe return when I have (though it will be a casual viewing; I'm so stocked up on movies to review for my blog, and first-view Netflix, that I tend to save movies in my own collection to watch in pieces before I go to bed each night.)

I gotta chuckle though at "Were it not for Michaelangelo Antonioni’s early 1960’s output, he would probably make my all-time top 5 most overrated directors." as you're basically saying you like about 60% of his most celebrated output, haha! I'd say that's not too bad a batting average.

I think one could make a case Blow-Up is overrated (I thought so the first time I saw it) but it has some great sequences and I'm a sucker for the 60s Swingin' London milieu, not to mention the Yardbirds cameo. Zabriskie Point is a mess, but contains what is probably my favorite movie scene of all time: that explosion at the end. The Passenger I thought was great when I saw it a few years ago on the big screen - kind of surprised you're so down on it!

As for the 60s ones, La Notte is the miss for me: it did not seem to connect on the same transcendental wavelengths as L'Avventura or L'Eclisse perhaps because he forsook the natural and urban landscapes of those films for the most part, for a party interior that Fellini and other directors did better?

But Vitti had brown hair in that one too, right? I love her as a brunette - well, I love her as a blonde but for some reason I really love her as a brunette... Another reason to celebrate this movie!

Jon said...

Hi Joel,

Thanks for the tremendous comments! For some reason, I find the situations and scenarios and the style to be lacking in conviction following Red Desert. I think it's just me though. Blow Up to me is always a dissapointment. I've tried watching it a few times and each time I find it to be a self indulgent bore. Moreso with Zabriskie Point, and The Passenger just does nothing for me. Visually and thematically it seems redundant, and Nicholson is out of place for me. I don't find the inspiration in the moviemaking there. I love his stuff up through Red Desert like I said, but after that I don't get into it. For me in order:
#1 Red Desert
#2 L'Avventura
#3 L'Ecclise
#4 La Notte

There's always the opportunity to change my mind though!