Movie Review – Red Desert

Red Desert (1964)
Written by Michelangelo Antonioni and Tonino Guerra
Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni

One of the marked changes to the Western landscape following World War II was a boom in technological innovations, particularly the transformation of industrial models. Plastic manufacturing took off, leading to the production of household items that were cheaper as they could be cranked out by machines rather than made by hand. Antonioni had been using landscapes, particularly those shaped by humans, as a constant source of alienation for his characters. They find themselves lost among the new buildings whose architecture looms over them in sinister coldness. In Red Desert, we find ourselves in a unique setting; we are no longer in the cities of Rome or Milan. Now we are in industrial Northern Italy, in a place called Ravenna. Factories sprawl across the landscape pumping bilious clouds of toxins into the air. The noise of machines drowns out the calm of nature. A river is saturated in pollutants.

Giuliana (Monica Vitti) is lost in this desolate landscape. She’s walking with her young son Valerio to the petrochemical plant where her husband Ugo works. Everything is chaotic. Workers are striking outside the plant. Giuliana is disoriented by the inhuman sounds coming out of the factory and the haze it creates in the air. Then, without thinking, she buys a half-eaten sandwich from one of the striking workers. Ugo is talking to Corrado Zeller (Richard Harris), who has come to Ravenna to recruit workers for a project he’s setting up in Argentina. 

Giuliana arrives, and she is introduced to Corrado. She goes to wait in her husband’s office with their son. Ugo explains that she was in a car accident but wasn’t physically injured. Instead, she’s been exhibiting extreme emotional distress. That night we watch her become agitated over a dream about drowning in quicksand. Her panic makes her feel as if it is real despite not being in the dream anymore. Ugo tries to calm her down but becomes exhausted because nothing seems to work. 

We learn that Giuliana has designs to open a small shop. She says she wants to sell ceramics there but knows very little about them and doesn’t know what to settle on. Ugo has already bought her a store space; she’s got paint swatches on the wall to mull over but has no idea what the store will be. She runs into Corrado and brings him to the store, asking for his opinion on the paint. He opens up and shares his feelings of listlessness which draws her closer to him.

Corrado brings Giuliana to Ferrara, where he’s recruiting more workers for his project. During this time, she opens up more about her condition. She tells Corrado about another female patient she met whom the doctors had advised finding someone or something to love as part of her treatment. We begin to wonder if this young woman is actually Giuliana because she details so much of what must have been happening inside the patient’s mind. She says the woman felt like there was “no ground beneath her like she was sliding down a slope, sinking, always on the verge of drowning.”

The following weekend, Giuliana & Ugo invited Corrado for a walk by the polluted estuary in their town. They bump into Max & Linda, another couple headed to a small riverside shack. The trio joins the duo, and they meet Emilia, who had arrived a little earlier. They have small talk, joke, making dirty jokes, and the sexual tension begins building among the assembled people. Eventually, they pile onto a single bed in the shack. Ugo touches Linda, gauging Giuliana, who doesn’t seem that she’s against a potential orgy, not entirely on board either. It looks like these people are about to engage in debauchery, but then something interrupts and brings Giuliana back to her internal nightmare.

A large steamship docks in the fog outside the shack. Giuliana notices a doctor arriving at the boat and being let onboard by one of the crew. A flag is raised on the ship, indicating it is under quarantine due to disease. Giuliana freaks out and is reminded of all her anxieties that plagued her before her distracting encounter. The potential for a sexual tryst evaporates, and eventually, the people begin tearing pieces of wood away from the interior walls to burn in a furnace to keep warm.

Ugo leaves for business, allowing Giuliana and Corrado to spend even more time together. She keeps opening up, even more than she has with her husband. Then, one morning, her son is suddenly paralyzed from the waist down. She fears he’s contracted polio. To calm her child, Giuliana spins an intricate story about a young indigenous girl who lives on an island and enjoys swimming in an isolated cove the rest of her village does not know about. Then one day, the girl spies a mysterious ship off the coast headed toward the island. Then the rocks that make up the edge of her cove suddenly begin to speak to her, and the girl sees them as something akin to bodies. Her son stands up, and Giuliana realizes he has been faking his condition, flooding her mind with questions about why her child would do something so cruel. It makes her feel even more isolated now from her own child.

Giuliana seeks out the only person that seems to understand her, Corrado. She goes to his apartment and begins to disrobe. She doesn’t seem to fully understand what she is doing, but she is doing it anyway. Corrado is aroused and takes her to his bed. They have sex, but Giuliana still feels isolated, and now she feels distant from him. Later, she wanders back to where the ship had been docked in quarantine. It seems to be better now. She asks one of the sailors if they take passengers; however, he doesn’t speak Italian, and she can’t understand him. Finally, though he doesn’t understand, Giuliana says to him, “We are all separate.” Sometime later, she is walking to the factory with her son, just as in the opening. They notice a smokestack pouring sickly yellow clouds into the air. Her son wonders if the smoke is killing the birds. Giuliana plainly states that the birds have learned not to fly there.

While there is an impulse to state that Antonioni is making some comment on industrialization & the subsequent pollution it brings, that is a simplistic approach based on the director’s larger body of work. He acknowledges those things but sees them as a means to explore the individual. Despite being an antifascist, I would not say the filmmaker was a communist. I assume he had strong sympathies for the political ideology, but his artistic concerns were more focused on individual & psychological implications of the modern conditions rather than collective responses to them.

In a manner that Todd Haynes would clearly emulate decades later in Poison, Julianne Moore playing the Monica Vitti role, Red Desert, uses its polluted industrial environment as a metaphor for the anxieties of contemporary living. Most of the world has had to wrestle with the ever-looming presence of disease even as the West developed vaccines and antibodies to treat them. In portions of the West, people are forced to live in sickening conditions to provide material goods for those outside those industrial zones. 

Red Desert was Antonioni’s first color film, and how he chooses to use color provides deeper insight into his artistic process. Most structures, especially interiors, are painted in grays and muddy whites. The shack where Giuliana and her friends gather for a sexually charged encounter is crimson red, reflecting the smoldering hunger for sex in the air. The exteriors are permanently filled with thick clouds of fog, muting the colors of buildings and people’s clothes until they fully emerge from this haze. What is lost to us in the present moment, where color film is ubiquitous, is that color movies were not the standard within European cinema. Black and white still dominated the form, and Red Desert was hailed as a shift in that aesthetic. Color film, as something widely acceptable for European artistic films, was normalized thanks partly to this picture.

The story Giuliana tells Valerio is immediately notable because it visually contrasts with the rest of the picture. We shift to a landscape where humanity is living in accord with nature. The young girl’s brown skin exudes the warmth and healthiness that Giuliana lacks. The island is the counterpoint to the polluted landscape of our protagonist. The sun is warm, and the ocean waves are an idyllic blue. The little girl feels far more in contact with her world than Giuliana implying the story she tells is a yearning she has inside, expressing it to her son, who at the time she believes is stricken with paralysis.

Red Desert is marked by an increased sense of anxiety. In Antonioni’s previous work, characters felt more like they were in a malaise, idling through daily life, consumed by decadence and distraction. Anxiety was present but more a symptom of alienation. For Giuliana is a massive ball of anxiety, conveyed beautifully through Monica Vitti’s performance. She is like so many people we’ve met, constantly feeling a baseline sense of agitation, led through life based on an understanding of terror. When we take in the world she inhabits, arguing against her point of view is problematic. The world is a strange, obscured nightmare.

Corrado also experiences existential dread, but like Piero in L’eclisse, his masculinity creates a distance between himself and his recognition of that anxiety. When Giuliana comes to him near the film’s conclusion, he takes advantage of her disorientation to use her body. Antonioni shoots the scene so that the act is disconnected from the people. It’s body parts and sounds, but never two people embracing in the act of love. Instead, their bodies resemble those curved, fleshy-looking rocks along the coast in Giuliana’s story of the island girl, fragments of people crying out. It is intentional that in the next scene, Giuliana pours her heart out to a person (the foreign sailor) who cannot understand a single word she says. That is her ultimate fear, to be unseen & unheard in a world that is moving at a pace beyond her comprehension.

All the themes in Red Desert are still rippling through today’s cinema. Todd Haynes’ Poison is obviously drawn from this work, but other existential pictures touch on the same ideas. American Filmmaker Jeff Nichols’ movies (Take Shelter, Midnight Special) derive much of their atmospheric and character depth from Antonioni and similar works. Controversial director Lars von Trier, while aesthetically operating in a different milieu, is obsessed with themes of contemporary alienation and uses surreal aesthetics to tell similar stories to Antonioni. It is worth noting that almost 60 years out and Western societies still cannot come to any meaningful conclusions about these anxieties beyond telling people to just live with them. The dread of Giuliana is all of ours, and like her, we’re stumbling through the fog seeking connection.

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