Red Desert (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Christopher Sharrett

Monica Vitti as Giuliana

Monica Vitti as Giuliana

Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni; produced by Antonio Cervi; screenplay by Michelangelo Antonioni and Tonino Guerra; cinematography by Carlo Di Palma; art direction by Piero Poletto; editing by Eraldo Da Roma; costumes by Gitt Magrini; music by Giovanni Fusco; electronic music by Vittorio Gelmetti; starring Monica Vitti, Richard Harris, Carlo Chionetti, Valerio Bartoleschi, Xenia Valderi, Rita Renoir, Aldo Grotti, Lili Rheims, Emanuela Pala Carboni. DVD. Color. 117 min. A Criterion Collection release, distributed by Image Entertainment.

Michelangelo Antonioni’s Il deserto rosso (Red Desert) is usually seen as the conclusion to his masterful tetralogy that includes L’avventura, La notte, and L’eclisse, although some argue that it is the beginning of the color experiments that would be followed by Blow-Up and Zabriskie Point. This minor debate seems pointless, since Antonioni’s concerns are consistent throughout his films of the Sixties: the disintegration of postwar Western society, the collapse of language, the pervasiveness of alienation in the new environment of the postwar capitalist state. A far more crucial debate centers on Antonioni’s politics, especially with the arrival of Red Desert, the film that uses as a backdrop the Italian economic “miracle” that industrialized regions such as Ravenna, south of the Po River, the site of the film. The standard claim is that Antonioni estheticized industry, specifically the foreboding manufacturing complex that is the film’s key location. As I understand the term, “estheticize” means to make something beautiful, often without regard to its actual nature; an added connotation may be to turn it into spectacle while removing the object from all social and political contexts. If this is true of Red Desert, one could argue that the sin is shared by a generation of exhibitions at the Whitney, MASS MoCA, and a huge school of art for which Antonioni’s work is a central precursor. But Red Desert makes a devastating comment about industrialism that is at best merely replicated in the industrial art of the past forty years, much of which revels in its catastrophic imagery.

The imagery of Red Desert is by no means wrenched from political/economic concerns, despite the frequent accusations that Antonioni is an esthete, or interested solely in the psychological (a major concern, but integrated into others), or, worse, the metaphysical. There is a recurring tendency to say that Antonioni is of the left, but not a Marxist (to what point, given the evidence of his work?) without regard for what a close reading of his films reveals. He is certainly not among the “engaged” directors of the Sixties such as Godard. For all my admiration of Godard, I think Antonioni shows greater empathy for his characters, and more concern for the impact of capitalist civilization on human beings than one can find in the often remote, essayistic films of Godard. Antonioni remarked upon completing Red Desert that he was sympathetic to the idea of progress and that it is important to find ways to adjust to technological change, a perfectly reasonable statement (unless one wants to revert to Year Zero) that has led many to argue that he advocates a reductive “adapt or die” attitude toward industrial capitalism. Antonioni deepened problems, or critics deepened them for him, when he said that he found the industrial complex at Ravenna fascinating while the forest across the road seemed rather bland, bringing the accusation that he is decadent and insensitive to the environmental impact of industry, as critics failed to note that this fascination (minus Antonioni’s humanism) is precisely the focus of many schools of avant-garde modernism. It is hardly a revelation that the constructed world, rather than nature, has long been the main topic of art. A study of the tale rather than the teller is essential for understanding the value of Red Desert, whose worldview we see, even more than in Antonioni’s earlier works, from a woman’s perspective, encouraging us to view the film’s landscape from a position other than that of patriarchy.

Giuliana (Monica Vitti, whose performance reminds us of her singular importance to the postwar European cinema) is an emotionally disturbed woman, a survivor of an accident that we learn was an attempted suicide. She is introduced with her little boy Valerio (Valerio Bartoleschi) outside of a sinister factory complex, the chimneys of which belch flame and yellow smoke into an overcast sky. Striking workers, one of whom is being arrested, shout their demands to the impervious industrial citadel, the interior offices of which are a humming, sanitized science-fiction nightmare. The film is concerned with Giuliana’s negotiations through this nightmare, one that is plainly a patriarchal invention, a world whose rules are exclusively those of men (seen huddling in little conspiracies, or chatting amiably on the phone, oblivious to the terrible hallucinatory world in the backdrop). Giuliana’s “neurosis” may be seen as a natural, logical response to the female’s archetypal entrapment by an unfeeling male civilization, here rendered horrific and on the brink of decay—indeed, Red Desert has been termed an apocalyptic work. The notion works especially well here, since the male characters of the industrial hell that is the setting of the film have not a clue as to the ultimate consequences of their invention, and negotiate it, unlike Giuliana, entirely as the norm.

The extent of Giuliana’s alienation is evident in an early scene, when she asks a nearby worker if she can buy his sandwich, even though he has already taken a bite. Her need for communion with another human being is thus profound, although she goes behind some shrubs to eat, momentarily leaving Valerio behind. The scene is important, conveying Giuliani’s paranoia, her feeling that her hunger for human contact might be seen by others as abnormal. There is also the sense in this moment, since she eats alone, that she feels no nurturance from the patriarchal family, despite her apparent affection for her child. In a conversation with Godard, included in this disc’s supplements, Antonioni states that Giuliana’s “personal crisis was the irreconcilable divide—the gap—between her sensibility, intelligence, and psychology, and the way of life that was imposed on her.” Indeed, the film is explicit in its insistence that the sensitive individual (who must be, in the director’s view, axiomatically female, with little possibility for the male partaking of authentically human sensibility) cannot enjoy happiness in this end-product of patriarchal capitalist rule. A pervasive theme in Antonioni’s work is the concept “Eros is sick,” meaning that the erotic, the drive for life, is sickened and doomed by the death drive in a society operating under the assumptions of capitalism and repression—the “extinction” of the young lovers (Vitti and Alain Delon) by the world of finance capital in L’eclisse, which concludes with an apocalyptic montage suggesting the eclipse of humanity, make the point efficiently.

Giuliana’s meal behind the shrubs introduces Antonioni’s portrait of the industrial world as irredeemable wasteland. It also introduces Antonioni’s painstaking skills as a graphic artist, and his absolute control of color film in his first venture into the medium. Each of Antonioni’s locations has been retouched by the director, with roads, signs, buildings, tracts of land, even a piece of forest painted to transmit the blight that is industrial civilization. Giovanni Fusco’s music, supplemented by Vittorio Gelmetti’s electronic compositions, encompasses the spectator with a sense of dread that we have long since taken for granted in everyday life; with this film, Antonioni confirms his status as a visionary, applying insight to the commonplace and thereby sensitizing the viewer to the reality of the present.

Giuliana’s green coat and her boy’s brown jacket are the only evidence of life as she nervously devours the sandwich purchased from the worker; she is suddenly distracted as she notices her sickening surroundings (an Antonioni construction), consisting of mounds of smoking industrial detritus and the various hideous byproducts it pours into the gray-black earth. This vision of industry is merely a foreshadowing of the unwholesomeness to come, undercutting entirely notions of the film trying to make us “adapt” (meaning, feel happy about) industrial culture. (The nuances of Antonioni’s thought on the topic are contained in the invaluable Michelangelo Antonioni: The Architecture of Vision.)

The relationship of industrial culture to human psychology becomes intricate. Does the industrial inferno merely exteriorize Giuliana’s neurosis, or is it, at least in part, the cause? The answer may be located in her relationship with her husband, Udo (Carlo Chionetti), who seems sympathetic enough, but treats her as a “case,” describing her symptoms to a colleague, Corrado Zeller (Richard Harris), who will soon be Giuliana’s lover. The relationship between Giuliana and Udo might be seen as Antonioni’s depiction of the normal bourgeois relationship under existing gender assumptions. Udo seems concerned about his wife, but perhaps to the extent that she causes him inconvenience and embarrassment; his patronizing description of her to Corrado raises suspicions. One could hardly say that there is intimacy in the couple’s relationship. The most striking moments inside their stark, modernist apartment, whose design suggests modernism’s aversion to human comfort, show Giuliana alone, in a state of misery both physical and psychological, looking for an escape that isn’t available (since marriage for the unpropertied female offers no escape). When she is comforted by Udo, Antonioni places the blue bar of a railing across the frame, conveying Giuliana’s entrapment and the fractured nature of the marriage.

Corrado offers a temporary distraction; he shows sexual interest in Giuliana from the moment of her introduction by Udo. An heir to an industrial fortune, Corrado takes, or at least feigns, a blasé attitude toward his job, although he expresses frustration when he is unable to obtain workers for his plant in Patagonia. His full name recalls the Italian-German pact that spread European fascism, and that kept fascist ideas alive and essential to the postwar, antisocialist West. As Corrado, Richard Harris is superb. It is unfortunate that his finely nuanced voice, which alternated between wistfulness and suppressed rage, is here dubbed in Italian. (It always struck me that Harris, in this film, used many of the facial and physical gestures of the young Brando, perhaps thinking that this range of emotional display would substitute for the inevitable dubbing.) Corrado is easily distracted, staring at the paint on a factory wall while speaking to prospective workers. His somewhat depressed mood seems to compliment Giuliana’s extreme nervousness, although there is also the strong sense that his persona is a mask, used here as a tool of seduction. He projects a world-weary, existential outlook, saying that he believes in humanity, progress, and socialism “perhaps.” But there is little despair to his proclamations, which are stated with a small grin that looks increasingly to be a way of wooing Giuliana, the unhinged, vulnerable woman whose intellectual curiosity piques Corrado’s interest. His lost-soul exterior indeed makes him attractive to Giuliana, who feels the need to ask him questions, and get his approval on small issues. Antonioni is again posing questions about the nature of normality, since Giuliana’s early relationship with Corrado seems less a product of free-floating neurosis (it makes sense to recall Freud’s thought that neurosis is pervasive) than the logical, tormented behavior of the female in heteronormative relationships. Without a sense of an alternative, she can merely continue to pursue an ideal, who, as the film argues, will manipulate and oppress her.

Giuliana and Corrado amble about, first to a gray street (painted by Antonioni) where Giuliana plans to open a store, although she has no idea what to sell—it sits empty, its walls dabbed with swatches of paint resembling the work of certain of the New York abstract expressionists (whose work Antonioni loved). The silence of the moment is striking, as is the sense of utter desolation. The fruit of a vendor’s wagon is painted gray, the vendor’s face itself is a sickly green. These moments, suggesting the slow-burning Armageddon that is industrial society, hardly prompts an understanding of this film as existing in a graphic art cocoon; its ambition is expansive, its view of society condemnatory. As Corrado and Giuliana begin their brief journey/affair, it is apparent that theirs is a journey of descent rather than self-discovery.

They meet with Udo, then with a group of his business acquaintances in a small shack whose interior is painted blood red. What follows is one of Antonioni’s archetypal near-orgies, where sex either doesn’t happen (the case here) or is unsatisfying or evanescent (Blow-Up, Zabriskie Point). Corrado’s personality fully emerges in this sequence. He lies pouting in a corner, feeling ignored, then taking out anger at the thin walls of the shack as the group starts to destroy it for firewood. The wooden shack, a small emblem of the natural world, is easily smashed by the momentary rage/caprice of its bourgeois occupants. Significantly, Corrado’s pouting occurs as Giuliana asserts her sexuality, laughing and wanting to make love. The male becomes more neurotic as the female starts to thrive.

Giuliana distances herself from Corrado, then visits him at his apartment, where their tormented lovemaking replicates her relationship with Udo. As Corrado tries to remove her clothes, Giuliana repeatedly twists away, at one moment holding up her palms as if to create a barrier against him. The red rail of the bedstead bisects the image of their lovemaking, just as the blue banister bisected Udo’s empty gestures toward his wife. We mostly see Corrado’s nude back in close-up, as if he is a predator bearing down on Giuliana. When sex finally takes place, the room suddenly turns a sandy pink, alluring but entirely artificial, the erotic contaminated by death. At their final encounter at her shop, Giuliana asks him to leave, and he quickly acquiesces. The illegitimate “affair” isn’t condemned as transgression, but merely dismissed as more of the same, the male entirely unable to make a moment’s authentic contact with the female.

Giuliana’s relationship with her son Valerio seems her only respite, but the prospects for the child and the mother-child relationship look grim. In interviews, Antonioni remarked that Valerio’s toys, including a gyroscope and a tall, Giacometti-like robot, might prepare the child for the new world awaiting him. Once again, Antonioni’s apparent optimism is undercut by his art. There is little about the toys (which include a Huey helicopter, the key emissary of death in the U.S. invasion of Vietnam) that isn’t sinister, the robot’s batteries making it shuttle back and forth, banging against the furniture, its eyes staying aglow as Giuliana closes the boy’s bedroom door. At one point Valerio feigns paralysis (an idea inflected by Michael Haneke in The Seventh Continent), suggesting the infectious nature of neurosis in the child’s act of gaining attention. His sudden “recovery,” causing a range of emotion to overwhelm his mother, suggests the tenuousness of the mother-child relationship, often seen as enduring under any circumstance.

As a way of comforting Valerio, Giuliana tells him a story about a girl on a beautiful pink island surrounded by a crystalline sea. The rendering of the story provides one of the most stunning sequences of the film, offering a marked contrast to the monstrous mise-en-scène of the main narrative. It is clear that the fable is told by Giuliana less to comfort her boy than herself. The young girl of the story (Emanuela Pala Carboni) swims seminude, communing with wildfowl, eyeing a strange, unmanned sailboat that approaches the island, then turns about. The girl, in Giuliana’s telling, then hears a woman’s ethereal song emanating, so the narrator says, from the rocks of the island, which bear an uncanny resemblance to nude human forms. It seems apparent that the young girl is Giuliana’s tormented ego ideal, a person alone in an idyllic environment, but one in which she nevertheless exists isolated and on a psychological borderline. The beauty of the moment is therefore deceptive, since it helps affirm the total pessimism of the film. The “chant of the rocks,” an extraordinary performance by Cecilia Fusco, is the major musical theme of the film, acting in counterpoint to the electronic noise of the main title in establishing the film’s essential dialectic: the current world and the art it generates, however removed from the physical destruction of industry, cannot escape its assumptions, nor the psychological toll it exacts.

The final moment replicates the first, with Giuliana alone with her child outside of her husband’s factory, steam shooting from a nearby valve. Valerio notices how birds avoid the yellow smoke discharged from chimneys. Giuliana replies that they have come to understand it as poison and avoid it. This is Antonioni’s final remark about “adapting” in the new environment. One can try to get by, but the reality of the situation prevails. Animals may have the sense to avoid poison (until the earth reaches a point where there is nowhere to go), but thus far human beings seem to lack that natural instinct, not only in regard to a deadly environment but also to outdated social institutions.

Many of us have long awaited a restoration of Red Desert, whose remarkable color, achieved of course before the digital age, needed the sensitive hands that Criterion clearly provides. The Blu-ray edition is, predictably, remarkably crisp, although to my mind it overly amplifies some of the muted hues of Antonioni’s palette. The disc includes an interview with Antonioni just after the film was completed. It is a joy to look at and listen to a man so serious about his life and work, at a time when so many filmmakers appear to be snide, self-involved careerists. An interview with Monica Vitti reveals a happy person predictably the opposite of her screen persona; she reflects intelligently on her relationship and work with Antonioni. The disc also contains N.U. and Gente del Po, two early Antonioni documentaries about the Po region and the people who worked there; the stoic yet lyrical style of these films shows the influence of neorealism, and looks forward to the Antonioni of the Sixties. The enclosed booklet contains an essay by Mark Le Fanu, and most significantly, the previously mentioned Godard/Antonioni conversation. John Forgacs’s thoughtful commentary track provides a few challenges to the notion of Antonioni as apolitical artist.

Antonioni’s prescience in Red Desert looks all the more remarkable given not just the proliferation of industrial art in the last forty years, but also the endgame of industrialism as capital migrates from the U.S. to regions especially friendly (courtesy of imposed “free trade” laws) to particularly degraded wage slavery. There are a number of contemporary chronicles of the consequences of postindustrialism, none more impressive than Andrew Moore’s photo-essay, Detroit Disassembled, showing a largely abandoned, rotting city, with schools, libraries, theaters, and entire neighborhoods allowed to decay in unfeeling solitude. A school, complete with desks and textbooks, succumbs to a bizarre, repugnant putrefaction. It seems obvious, in the current climate, why Antonioni, despite tentative hopefulness about industry offering prospects for humanity, could paint only a landscape of doom, since technology is never free of the uninterrogated economic drives that are the true pollutants of civilization.

To purchase Red Desert, click here.

Christopher Sharrett is Professor of Communication and Film Studies at Seton Hall University.

Copyright © 2010 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XXXVI, No. 1