Red Desert (1964)

Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni

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Red Desert might make you expect something resembling a western, at least on the surface.  Knowing this was an Antonioni film, I didn’t expect much of a narrative or anything as plot-heavy as a John Wayne movie, but the title does make you think of two things: color and scope.

There are certainly a lot of wide shots of the landscape in the film, so in that way maybe there are some similarities to how many westerns are shot.  That being said, those environments in Red Desert are bleak.  The sky is always gray, there is heavy fog, and the landscape is almost always obstructed by a large, man-made structure that is anything but beautiful, like each smokestack is a knife plunged into the Earth’s heart.

The film opens with workers on strike.  There are long, wide shots with little dialogue and not even too much sound aside from the mechanical groans of the factory and its machines.  Somewhere in this portrait we meet Giuliana (Monica Vitti) and her young son, Valerio.  Giuliana approaches a man, and with the rabid eyes of a starving raccoon asks to buy his half-eaten sandwich from him.  The man expresses some concern for her well-being, but she hurries away.  She offers the food to her son, for whom you think she must have purchased the sandwich, but when he refuses it, she doesn’t protest and eats it herself.

This character isn’t fighting for her son’s survival, in fact he might hardly need her help, but instead she’s fighting for herself.  Soon we meet her husband, Ugo, and he has some authority at the factory where he works, calling into question Giuliana’s behavior.  She’s not as poor as we were led to believe.

It turns out that Giuliana is trying to cope with life in general, and her circumstances, both economic and geographical, hardly matter.  In fact, the location of the story, in all its industrial dreariness, seems more a manifestation of her internal strife, as if the world would look like that wherever she went, following her around.

Giuliana suffers silently throughout the story.  Her husband doesn’t seem to have much sympathy beyond some light initial concern for her struggle.  She was in a bad accident which left her physically unscathed but which has shaken her to her core.  Ugo, it seems, was open to her struggle only so far as he imagined it might affect him.  At a certain point he figured she must’ve moved on, and so he stopped watching over her quite so much.  Giuliana continues to wander through the world like a ghost.  She is joined by Corrado (Richard Harris), a man who works with her husband and who develops a peculiar attraction to her.

They talk about life and depression and a few other things, but their conversation never seems to matter as much as the way they talk and the landscape they walk through.  In a variety of wide shots and long shots with a long zoom lens, Giuliana (and occasionally Corrado) are almost always isolated in the frame…

In the first image, Giuliana and Corrado are small in the landscape, dominated by the man-made structures with jut up from the ground like spikes.  In the second, the long zoom lens makes sure Giuliana is the only subject to remain in focus, separated from the out of focus scene.  She might as well be walking blind through the world, everyone and everything just a fuzzy impression of what it really is.  In the third shot, she and Valerio (when we first meet them) are again separate from the people who turn out to be only feet away.  They are again dominated in the frame by the bleak, large structures built up behind them.

It’s clear that Giuliana is depressed.  We know this by looking at her, and she talks about it at length.  Somewhere in the middle of the film, she and Corrado and Ugo join a few other adults in a small, nearly rundown shack, and they talk about sexuality in a way that seems to discomfort some of them but eventually makes them all manically delighted.  When they decide it’s too cold, they begin to take joy in breaking wooden objects (chairs, slats of wood, etc.) to burn for firewood.  They are at their happiest when being destructive.

But this manic energy isn’t sustainable.  Pretty soon Giuliana runs away on her own.  While standing on the foggiest of docks, so that you can hardly see the person ten feet away from you, she drives away, leaving them behind, only to come to a stop when she realizes she has nowhere to go.  In the distance of this scene, the large shipping boats moan and groan.

Later in the film, Valerio seems unable to walk.  It might be that he’s lying or it might be that Giuliana wishes he was lying.  She begins to suspect that he may have polio or even lose his legs, and she tells him a story about a girl who lives on an island, in a world completely separate from the one of this film.  The bright colors of this tropical island, the audible serenity of a breeze and a light current, all clash with what we’ve seen through this film.  We realize just how bogged down in the grays, the groans, the murkiness of Giuliana’s world.  In the story she tells, a girl lived happily on the beach, doing nothing but not wanting to do anything but lie in the sand and swim in the crystal clear ocean.  One day a sail boat approached the island, and when she went to see about the boat, it sailed off.

The boats of her story are calm, beautiful and made for recreation.  The boats of her reality are all in service of manufacturing and capitalism.  They are large, like giant skyscrapers laid on their side.

Eventually Valerio can walk again, but it never really matters.  Red Desert ends with Giuliana and Corrado sleeping together in a rather uncomfortable moment of intimacy.  The camera zooms in on close ups of each person, in one case Corrado’s back, and the shots emphasize their isolation.  This is not a moment of love, and immediately after, Giuliana laments that she cheated on her husband.

“There’s something terrible about reality, but I don’t know what it is.  No one will help me.  Even you didn’t help me, Corrado,” she says.

We then see Giuliana and Valerio walking near the factory like in the beginning of the story.  She points out to her son that the fog (from the smokestacks) is yellow because it’s poisonous.  He asks ‘what about the birds,’ and she says that the birds know by now.  The point, it seems, is not that there is any healing left, just coping.

This is a very depressing world.  Things are bleak, shot with long lenses so that the subject isn’t quite as sharp, and they’re isolated from the blurry background and foreground, all alone.  In other shots Giuliana is surrounded by a busy background, suggesting that there is no peace in her mind.

This film takes what L’Avventura was implying and makes it much more concrete.  Like in that film, this is a character who desperately needs someone because she’s so helplessly alone and scared to be alone.  L’Avventura approached this idea from outside the main characters, so that we might look at them with some objectivity.  When the two leads get back together in the end, in a moment of weakness, the music is dramatic, making it clear that the viewing audience should know that what they see as love is anything but.  Red Desert takes a character like Claudia (played by the same actress as Giuliana) and dives inside her mind.  This might as well be what Claudia had seen all along in L’Avventura, only now we get to share in her world view, thankfully only temporarily.

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