Red Desert

“There was a girl who lived on an island. Grown-ups bored and frightened her. She didn’t like kids her age. They all pretended to be grown up. So she was always alone with the cormorants, seagulls, and wild rabbits. She’d discovered a small beach far from town with crystal-clear water and pink sand. She loved that spot. The colors of nature were so beautiful, and there was no noise. She’d leave only when the sun did too. One morning a sailing ship appeared. It wasn’t like the usual boats that passed by. This was a real sailing ship. The kind that had braved the stormy seas all over the world and who knows—maybe even beyond. Seen from afar, it was a splendid sight. But up close it took on a mysterious air. There was no one aboard. It paused for a few minutes and then turned and sailed off as silently as it had come. She was used to people’s strange ways, so she wasn’t surprised. But no sooner was she back on shore when… *singing is heard* One mystery is all right, but two are too many. Who was singing? The beach was deserted like always, but there was that voice, sometimes near, sometimes far. At one point it seemed to come from the sea itself or from an inlet among the rocks, the numerous rocks that she had never realized were like flesh. And the voice in that spot sounded so sweet.”

“Who was singing?”

“Everything was singing. Everything.”

So goes Giuliana’s story to her son, a scene shot in stark contrast to the rest of film. The sequence is like a pastoral daydream of paradise, an Eden amidst the hellish earth that Giuliana has been devoured by throughout the film. It’s all the more remarkable then to consider that it’s the only scene in the film shot without any visual manipulations; there are no filters over the lenses, no artificial burning or painting of anything in front of it, no use of the technicolor film to make certain colors unnaturally vivid. Giuliana’s dream is of a remote nature far away from the suffocating modernity. It’s significant in many ways, especially in how it returns to the film’s overarching motifs of ships, water, and sound, of visual and aural apparitions that signify reality and sanity slipping away. When her son’s question breaks the dream’s spell Giuliana is forced back into reality and quickly descends into a waking nightmare.

“There’s something terrible about reality, but I don’t know what it is. No one will tell me.” — Giuliana

Red Desert was Antonioni’s first endeavor after his remarkable early 60s trilogy of L’avventura, La notte, and L’eclisse which were a cornerstone of the 60s European art-film movement. The films have been called studies in modern anxiety and ennui in which Antonioni depicts characters lost and adrift amidst an uncertain modernity. L’avventura dealt with the unexplained disappearance of a woman, a disappearance that inverts the meaning of the title from an external adventure, to an internal one in which the characters examine their own empty lives. La notte turns a microscope on the disintegration of a marriage. It was also the least experimental of trilogy, with a largely linear narrative that was nonetheless intense in its concentrated focus. L’eclisse was certainly Antonioni’s most daring experiment; more of a tone poem or essay film that radically broke the rules of continuity editing, building associations with objects for which Antoninoi would bring together in the end in the cinematic equivalent of a fugue.

In Red Desert, Antonioni borrows elements from all three. From L’avventura, Antonioni takes the expressiveness of vast landscapes that act as representations of the characters’ inner turmoil. However, Red Desert substitutes L’avventura’s coastal beaches, rocks, and buildings for depicts of industrial desolation, a depiction that’s often been misunderstood. Many interpret it as representing the destruction of nature and the cause of Giuliana’s fragile sanity, but the story of Giuliana’s breakdown being associated with a traumatic car crash (one in which she wasn’t injured) doesn’t quite seem to gel with that theory. Giuliana’s psychological trauma lies more in her inability to adapt to modernity, rather than some inherent evil in modernity itself. Indeed, Antonioni seems to find a great deal of beauty in the film’s industrial landscapes, and even the stretches of burnt and blackened land, obsidian pools, smokestacks belching poison, pipes that breathe enveloping fog, and networks of geometric steel seem to have a sort of stunned dignity to them.

From La notte, Antonioni retains the focus on characters and relationships. If Monica Vitti will ever be remembered for anything other than being Antonioni’s statuesque muse, then Red Desert will be the film to argue that. In her last film with Antonioni, Vitti eclipses all of her previous performances playing the neurotic Giuliana. Vitti said in an interview that Giuliana was her toughest role, one in which she had to studiously prepare for daily. She neither wanted to artificially enhance Giuliana’s neurosis and push it towards schizophrenia, but neither did she want to downplay it to such a degree that it wouldn’t be noticeable. Throughout the film, Vitti adeptly walks that middle ground, and perhaps sets the standard for the neurotic woman archetype that would become a fixture in 60s art-films like Polanski’s Repulsion and Bergman’s Persona.

Red Desert is, in a sense, a visual representation of TS Eliot’s The Waste Land, which is a poem full of characters bewailing their isolation, only to learn they’re surrounded by other individuals. In that sense, it’s also important to note Giuliana’s relationships with her husband, Ugo (Carlo Chionetti), her potential lover, Corrado (Richard Harris), and son. Ugo and Corrado are characters already assimilated into this world, and their inability to meaningfully connect to her is a result of that. Corrado, who merely fell into the business, is able to get closest in connecting with Giuliana. The centerpiece of the film is a 20-minute scene involving a get-together at the pier-side shack of Corrado’s friend, Max (Aldo Grotti). Here, we get a glimmer of hope that perhaps Corrado and Giuliana can connect, and perhaps Giuliana is recovering. But even here she’s haunted by illusory sounds and visions that seem to clash against the reality of everyone else.

From L’eclisse, Antonioni maintains that sense of daring cinematic experimentation, but adds an entirely new dimension with his revolutionary uses of color. People have often called Red Desert “painterly”, but that seems to overly generalize and minimize the breadth of Antonioni’s achievement. The film is awash in flatly colored surfaces, like the pure white of a hotel room that resembles a hospital ward, where Giuliana’s white gown marks her as a patient, while Ugo’s white robe marks him as a doctor. Antonioni uses colors as abstracts that cut into and through the frame, seeming to fragment the usual homogeneity of desaturated whites, grays, blacks, and cool blues and greens; this acts as a potent visual corollary for Giuliana’s delicate grip on reality and sanity where illusions jut out of her psyche like those colors and shapes do in the frame. Antonioni frequently enhances this effect with telephoto lenses that flatten the image, creating dense, out of focus areas that violently mesh foreground and background into distorted representations of dissolution and chaos that enfolds Giuliana. When Antonioni does revert to normal and wide lenses and large depth-of-fields, the images are almost always those of barren industrial wastelands that diminish its characters into objective miniatures.

In the same way Antonioni closed L’eclisse with a visual fugue full of the film’s motifs, he opens Red Desert in the same way. It begins by cutting between abstract, out-of-focus images of factors; this montage is accompanied by synthesized sound effects as well as a small, lilting, operatic female voice that wavers as if being tuned up and down (the same tune we hear in Giuliana’s dream). These elements violently clash against each other, vividly establishing the sense of unease with the modern world. The sound effects, especially, will become a refrain of Giuliana slipping from reality. They accompany the film’s lone sex scene between her and Corrado, which modulates between her face and body in shallow-focus close-ups, hearing that unsettling, indefinite droning buzz and Corrado in deep-focus mid-shots with no sound at all. Antonioni’s editing also becomes extremely elliptical here and elsewhere where Antonioni condenses and confuses temporal and spatial linearity. Though the film isn’t as extreme in its experimental editing as L’eclisse, it perhaps makes more judicious use of those ellipses which aren’t quite as emotionally alienating.

Red Desert is undeniably a world of machines in which people are either integrated as cogs or exist like viruses that need to be expelled. An early shot shows men in a factory watching over dials that seems to allude to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, another film about people being reduced to robotic working armies. Giuliana’s dream about a girl who disliked kids her own age because they pretended to be adults can be seen in her own son who is already playing with robots and chemical sets. In one memorable scene, Giuliana awakes from a nightmare, goes into her son’s room and observes a toy robot rolling back and forth across the floor; whether it’s meant to be a benign guardian or a malevolent force is left up to the viewer. Later, he shows her how one-plus-one can equal one when you combine two drops of liquid together. He also takes to pretending to be paralyzed, perhaps to get attention, or perhaps in preparation for his own life as an insensitive, robotic worker within the system.

Another key scene with Giuliana’s son finds her husband showing him a wind-up top that can’t fall over because, like a ship, it has a gyroscope in it that keeps it level even on water. This will become a key motif for Giuliana, who reveals to Corrado that when she was in a mental institution she frequently had a dream that solid ground would move underneath her and she was sliding into nothing. There’s almost a paradoxical inversion of the idea that solid land could be so unsure, while something floating on the water could be so steadfast. Giuliana’s constant visions of ships and boats seem to symbolize her desire to escape. But the quaint and inviting, if haunted, ship from her story is transformed into hulking, mutated, frightening behemoths in reality. When she finally finds her chance to go aboard one, she simply can’t leave her son and husband behind. Red Desert ends where it began, with Giuliana suggestively telling her son that birds have learned to stay away from the poisonous gas that the towers emit. Antonioni leaves it ambiguous as to whether Giuliana has made any progress, but it would be unfair by now to expect Antonioni to spell anything out for us.

Red Desert, and all of Antonioni’s filmography, has proved difficult for critics, cinephiles, and filmmakers to fully comes to grips with. Many dismiss him as hopelessly pretentious, failing to offer nearly as much as he demands from his audience. But perhaps no filmmaker from the era has had such a diverse and diffuse influence, from the contemporary absurdist takes of Taiwan’s Tsai Ming-liang on modernistic isolation, to the use of long takes and vast landscapes of Theo Angelopoulos. Red Desert’s influence alone can be seen in films like Lynch’s Eraserhead and Todd Haynes’ Safe (the focus on isolation amidst industrialization), Kubrick’s 2001 (the sterility of the bleach-white ineriors), and Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits (the vivid use of color). Red Desert feels like the perfect summation of Antonioni’s cinema, an impressive cinematic experiment and visual tone poem that blurs the line between reality and dream, sanity and insanity, while retaining a sharp focus on characters and storytelling. It may be Antonioni’s most humanistic and emotionally naked film, a film about an individual separated from reality because reality has separated from nature, a film about the psychological breakdown resulting from an inability to adapt and process a reality that seems more artificial than the nature in one’s dreams.

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About Jonathan Henderson
I'm a dedicated aesthete that's been fascinated with the arts since I was in my early teens. At 13 I saw my first foreign film, which ignited my passion for world cinema. I also discovered the enormous world of music out there and fell in love with everything from death metal to classical. My love for literature has especially grown in recent years, and I've taken up writing (and working really hard at) poetry. But over the past 12 years I've probably taken to film criticism more than anything, and seeing Neon Genesis Evangelion reignited my love for the arts (especially film) and took it to an even higher level. Now I write film reviews for two sites, including this one and Cinelogue. I play poker professionally, and while the world of arts and poker don't seem to converge much, I have taken the deductive and inductive logic that poker requires and attempted to apply it to all the arts as well as my criticism in an attempt to get past the jellybean syndrome ("I like blue jellybeans, you don't, and that's all we can say.").

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