Antonioni’s Red Desert at 50

Michelangelo Antonioni’s Il deserto rosso (Red Desert, 1964) corresponds closely in its themes and its form with the three major works that preceded it: L’Avventura (1960), La notte (1961), and L’Eclisse (1962). In these films, Antonioni addressed the alienating experience of modern, industrial, post-war European life. For his narratives, he privileged carefully constructed images over more conventional methods, such as explanatory dialogue. His muse, the great Italian actress Monica Vitti, starred in three of the films and had a crucial supporting role in another. All four have been, since the 1960s, central to the canon of post-war, experimental European cinema and exemplars of cinematic modernism. For the same amount of time, film scholars and cinephiles have referred to all four collectively as a loose tetralogy. Antonioni, though, had conceived of the film differently:

Red Desert isn’t really a continuation of my previous work. Before, the environment in which my characters lived was described indirectly through their own positions, their psychology and feelings and backgrounds. What those films were most about was the personal relationships of the characters.”

In Red Desert, the environment itself, and one woman’s inability to adapt to it, became the focus of his concerns. The experience of living within Italy’s mechanistic, smoke-filled landscape fosters alienation, anxiety, fear, and confusion in Giuliana (Monica Vitti); “there’s something terrible about reality, and I don’t know what it is,” she confesses to Corrado (Richard Harris). With Red Desert, Antonioni worked, for the first time, with color. In 1964 he pointed out:

“It doesn’t seem to me to be a big deal if other cinema authors who, until now, have been faithful to black and white – like Bergman, Dreyer, Fellini, and Resnais – have experienced [the] need of [using] color, and almost all of them at the same time. For me, the reason is this: Color has, in modern life, a meaning and function that it never had in the past.”

In the film, color itself becomes the narrative form. An omnipresent gray exists in Italy’s industrial heartlands, its pools of industrial rot and waste, the billowing smoke that rises from refineries and their smokestacks, and an enveloping fog that exacerbates Giuliana’s neuroses (which began, before the film’s timeline, after an automobile accident and a nervous breakdown). Giuliana’s white nightgown nearly blends into the white walls of her home, which she nervously clings to during a troubled night of anxiety and insomnia; her husband, Ugo (Carlo Chionetti) wears white as well, a way, as Antonioni scholar Seymour Chatman has observed, for the director “to underlie a kind of antiseptic aridity to their relationship.” These grays and whites contrast with the reds, blues, and greens that mark the interiors of factories, the exteriors of countless miles of industrial piing, and the massive radio towers that line an open field in Medicina.

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Red plays a particularly vital role in establishing the film’s ideas about intimacy, sexuality, and love. Giulinana, Ugo, Corrado and several others find themselves in a drab, gray fishing cottage and then worm their way into a small, bright red room. Hands caress backs and thighs, men and women, particularly Giuliana, talk about love and sex, and then the party simply dissembles the red wood planks of the room to make firewood. Intimacy, sexuality, love become interrupted, subjugated to this environment.

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Visually, Antonioni also distinguished Red Desert by a more widespread use of compression and defocused shots. The recurring flat, two-dimensional imagery underscores Giuliana’s detachment and physiological abstraction from her surroundings. Thematically, too, Antonioni distinguished the last installment of this loose, modernist tetralogy by turning it on a genuine note of clarity and hope, the only one of its kind across all four films. Giuliana, after a nervous tryst with Corrado, hallunicates a kaleidoscope of red sprawling across a ceiling. She later tells her son, Valerio (Valerio Bartoleschi), about birds that have learned to avoid flying through poisonous smoke. Consider what these moments signify, especially in comparison to the harrowing realities of Antonioni’s preceding masterpieces: there is no sorrowful gesture here of a hand upon a crying man’s shoulder, no love letter read, through tears, in the morning after a couple recognize the dissolving nature of their marriage, no empty intersection where two lovers had agreed, but then failed, to meet. Adaptation to her environment might very well be Giuliana’s problem, but she eventually realizes that adaptation is necessary for her survival.

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References: Seymour Chatman, Antonioni: or, The Surface of the World (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985). Michelangelo Antonioni: The Architecture of Vision. Writings and Interviews on Cinema. Edited by Marga Cottino-Jones. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).

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