With his 1964 film, Red Desert, Michelangelo Antonioni crafts an excellent contemplative piece of filmmaking that continues to perplex viewers to this day. Its setting can be anywhere and it can take place in any time. The film’s depiction of a neurotic woman on the verge of insanity can never be forgotten.
Along with such filmmakers as Ingmar Bergman and Robert Bresson, Antonioni emerged as one of the first contemplative filmmakers. Generally, contemplative films cause the viewer to contemplate or ponder their meaning. Slow camera movements and a lack of narrative are characteristic. Silence features more predominantly in contemplative films, opting for a more visual dialogue with the viewer. Expressive cinema, on the other hand, is usually intended to be instant entertainment. Not all films are strictly contemplative or expressive. Some of the best films employ techniques from both styles. Contemplative films challenge the viewer. They are often complex, poetic, and lyrical meditations on the human condition. These films tend to linger in the mind for a long time, as the viewer attempts to interpret their meaning.
One of the talents of the best contemplative filmmakers is the ability to show the viewer, rather than simply tell them. Antonioni is a master of this technique, and his ability to inform the viewer of Giuliana’s mental state through purely visual means is remarkable. Antonioni does not tell the viewer that her marriage is collapsing, but rather shows it with Ugo’s distance and Giuliana’s attraction to Corrado. Antonioni favors a poetic discourse opposed to a straightforward narrative. His camera moves slowly through this landscape, studying and scrutinizing its subjects and their movements.
One must consider the historical context in which Red Desert was made. World War II had a drastic effect on Italy’s economic, moral, and social life. Red Desert was released nearly twenty years after the end of the war. Italy had recovered from the devastation of the war and was on its way toward economic prosperity. The country’s petrochemical industry was on the rise, reducing vast, natural land into industrial wasteland, which is the world that the film inhabits. The diegetic world of the film at times seems like a remote, desolate landscape from an alien or future world.
Red Desert is a character study of a woman who is on the verge of insanity. Giuliana (Monica Vitti) is married to a successful industrial manager named Ugo (Carlo Chionetti). Although Ugo supports Giuliana financially, he is often away on business endeavors and is not emotionally supportive of her. In fact, Ugo takes on an almost robotic appearance, and does not have much to say to Giuliana. Ugo and Valerio (Valerio Bartholeschi), their son, are adapted to their industrial environment. Giuliana, on the other hand, is unable to adapt to her surroundings and never seems comfortable. She plans on opening a ceramics gallery in the neighborhood, hoping this will help her become acclimated to her environment.
Robin Wood writes, “The meeting of psychoanalytical theory and concepts of ideology suggest that every human being in our culture is a battleground on which is fought, at both conscious and unconscious levels…the struggle between the forces of repression and the urge to liberation” (Wood 23). Giuliana wants to be saved from the oppression that she feels her environment is imposing on her. Her husband Ugo is so absorbed in his own work that he does not take the time to listen to Giuliana’s concerns and does not realize the urgency of her situation.
In one scene, a noise coming from another room awakens Giuliana from a nightmare. She checks her temperature and then exits the bedroom. The composition of the scene conveys a sense of imprisonment. The foreground is dominated by a blue railing that runs horizontally across the image. Giuliana is standing in the background, framed as if she is in a prison cell. Of course, her prison cell is not literal, but metaphoric for her disturbed mental state. The source of the noise that awakens Giuliana is revealed first to the viewer and then to Giuliana. It is Valerio’s toy robot, which moves back and forth in the little boy’s room. In contrast to Giuliana, the robot does not awaken Valerio, showing that he is adjusted and comfortable in this technological world. Giuliana turns the toy off and shuts the door. The only thing that is visible is the robot’s eyes, which are watching Giuliana, who cannot escape its technological gaze. Giuliana walks down the stairs and then back up, looking frightened. The bars of the railing surround her. Ugo emerges from the bedroom and looks at the thermometer, telling her that it is normal. This reflects Ugo’s position throughout the film, which is one who constantly asserts that things are normal or the same as they were before Giuliana’s accident when they are obviously not. Giuliana puts her head on his shoulder, desperately looking for comfort that she cannot attain. She says that she dreamt that she was in a bed that was sinking deeper and deeper into quicksand. The dream directly correlates with Giuliana’s mental condition. Contrary to the oblivious Ugo’s belief, she is slipping deeper and deeper into madness. This scene and others in the film are framed in a way that place the viewer in an awkward, uncomfortable, and claustrophobic position. Similarly, Giuliana is continually in a state of discomfort and does not seem to know what to do. She stands up against a wall in the room. Rather than console her emotionally, Ugo tries to console her sexually, which she obviously does not need at the moment, or want.
Giuliana meets Ugo’s colleague, Corrado (Richard Harris), who is another lost soul. Corrado tells Giuliana, “It’s never still…I can’t look at the sea too long otherwise I lose interest in what’s happening here on land.” Unlike Ugo, Corrado takes the time to listen to Giuliana and comfort her. However, his true intentions are never entirely clear. On the one hand, Corrado seems to show a genuine concern for Giuliana’s mental health. On the other hand, he takes advantage of Giuliana’s disturbed mental state to have sex with her.
Part of the joy of watching the film is its ambiguity. One can never be sure of what the characters will do next nor can one be entirely certain of their intentions. I think that this is part of Antonioni’s intent.
The film’s opening credits sequence is out of focus, foreshadowing Giuliana’s emotional state. The opening scene establishes the dialectic between the forward movement of scientific and industrial progress and the resistance to that movement, or in other words, the old world versus the new world.
My favorite scene in the film occurs when Giuliana tells Valerio a story of a young girl on a desert island. It would have been more logical for Giuliana to tell Valerio a story with a male protagonist so that he could relate more to the tale. However, Giuliana’s choice to use a female protagonist reflects her own psychological state. Giuliana wants to escape her industrial environment and inhabit the world of the story in all of its simplistic beauty. The rocks take on an eerie human like form, and sing to her. Because the look of the film is so bleak, this scene penetrates the membrane of the screen and assaults the viewer’s visual senses with the beautiful colors of nature.
The film shows society’s disconnect with nature. Despite mankind’s technological progression, people overlook the beauty of nature and the basic simplicities of life. The film seems even more pertinent in today’s world, in which technological progress is moving at an accelerated rate. Antonioni has stated on several occasions that he is not against industry, but rather finds it to be inevitable and, at times, beautiful. However, the film’s unintended message is that there is nothing beautiful about this industrial wasteland. As people’s lives become more reliant on technology, they lose sight of the natural world around them, jeopardizing their spiritual health.
This is Giuliana’s case. She feels she can no longer connect with the world around her and she longs for a simpler life that no longer exists for her. When describing the film, Antonioni said that, “There are people who do adapt and others who can’t manage, perhaps because they are too tied to ways of life that are now out-of-date. This is Giuliana’s problem. What brought on her personal crisis was the irreconcilable divide, the gap between her sensibility, intelligence, and psychology and the way of life that was imposed on her. It’s a crisis that has to do not just with her surface relationships with the world-her perception of sounds, colors, and the coldness of the people around her-but with her whole system of values-social, moral, religious-which are by now out-of-date and can no longer support her. She therefore finds that she has to reinvent herself completely as a woman. That is the advice her doctor gives her and that she tries to follow. The film, in a sense, is the history of that effort” (Antonioni 1-2).
Antonioni employs several cinematic techniques to reflect Giuliana’s interior state. For example, the slightly unfocused images show that Giuliana is disturbed. The edgy soundtrack employs sounds that often seem alien and otherworldly, and signal Giuliana’s madness. In one scene, a point of view shot shows Giuliana’s isolation when a fog swallows Ugo and his friends. It is one of the film’s most striking compositions. The architecture in the film is also a trigger for Giuliana’s discomfort with the modern world. Her house, for example, looks just as bleak and foreboding as the interiors of the factories.
Alienation is a recurring theme in Antonioni’s work. Nowhere is it more evident than in Red Desert. Weber says “alienation arises when the self becomes disenchanted with the world and retreats into itself, oftentimes to reflect upon its relations with the world and its relationship with others” (Moore 22). The alienated self in Antonioni’s films feels uncomfortable in a world that can no longer provide a safe place for their human spirit (Moore 23). This is especially true in Red Desert, in which Giuliana wants desperately to connect to the world but feels she cannot.
Red Desert was released during Antonioni’s most productive period and is often linked to his loose trilogy of films, L’avventura (1960), La notte (1961), and L’eclisse (1962). Throughout Red Desert, Antonioni moves effortlessly from one scene to the next, giving the viewer the feeling that they are watching an actual case study. As with his three previous films, Antonioni shows a mastery of mise-en-scene and choreography of his actors.
After Red Desert, Antonioni went on to make such English language films as, Blow-Up (1966), Zabriskie Point (1970), and The Passenger (1975), which were more political films that had less to do with the collapse of relationships, a theme that dominates Antonioni’s early phase of films. In Red Desert, one begins to see the beginning of this transition. The fact that the film is usually called by its English language title foreshadows the director’s shift to English language films.
Red Desert may be too puzzling for many viewers who are accustomed to fast paced Hollywood films in which a lot happens. Just because a lot happens, it does not mean that it can have any lasting impact on the viewer. For those who are trained in viewing cinema that engages the intellect, Red Desert is a rewarding experience. It is a haunting, complex, and powerful meditation on modernity and its effect on the human spirit. It is a film that rewards and, in fact, requires multiple viewings to appreciate its value. This is an intellectual film that requires actual thought, something that is less important in mainstream Hollywood cinema. However, just because this film tends to appeal to intellectuals should not prevent others from experiencing it (Goldstein 33).
Monica Vitti was Antonioni’s muse. He used her in several of his films, including L’avventura, La notte, and L’eclisse. Vitti does not play Giuliana as a crazed psychopath. Rather, she gives a much more subtle performance, showing a woman who is slowly losing her sanity. Vitti is beautiful and riveting as the disturbed woman. All of the performances in the film are naturalized, reflecting Antonioni’s gift for blocking. The movement of the actors is always natural and adds to the film’s documentary authenticity.
This documentary authenticity reflects Antonioni’s beginnings as a neorealist filmmaker. Emerging after World War II, Italian Neorealism concerned itself with topics that were pertinent to the lives of the everyday people. These films employed non-professional actors and devised a new form of acting that was less theatrical and more realistic. These films depicted the struggles of the individual after the war.
In Red Desert, these struggles are no longer economic hardships, as depicted by many neorealist films. Rather, these struggles are now purely psychological and deal with peoples’ relationship with their environment and their ability to adapt in it. Similar to neorealist films, Antonioni is concerned with actual day-to-day events. In Ravenna, Italy, where the film was shot, the companies SAROM and ANIC actually did transform the landscape into an industrial wasteland. Antonioni is interested in depicting aspects of modern life. He shows the spiritual confusion that results from not being able to adapt in this ever-changing landscape. Antonioni said, “Our lives are dominated by industry…I don’t just mean the factories themselves but also their products. They are all over our houses, made of plastic or materials that, up to a few years ago, were totally unknown” (Antonioni 3).
In Antonioni’s body of work, Red Desert is notable for being the director’s first color film. Antonioni has received much praise for his use of color, for which he develops specific metonymic patterns. With his director of photography, Carlo Di Palma, he experiments with color by manipulating the image in a variety of ways. He uses filters, lenses at different focal lengths, and out of focus shots to manipulate colors. In some cases, these colors directly correlate with Giuliana’s mood; at other times, they do not. Antonioni takes on the persona of a painter, literally painting the landscape with dull colors to make it more bleak and menacing. Red Desert is an art film and is a great example of film as art, placing it on the same level with painting, sculpture, and other traditional arts.
The absence of color in some scenes is contrasted with moments in which color features predominantly and demands the viewer’s attention, such as when Giuliana shows Corrado the space where she plans on opening a ceramics gallery. Giuliana wants the gallery to be painted either cool blue or green. The film’s original title was going to be Pale Blue and Green, but Antonioni dropped the title because he felt it was not strong enough and was too attached to the idea of color (Antonioni 10). Giuliana prefers cool colors like blue and green because they will calm her and the things that she wants to sell will stand out better. Blue and green are also the colors of nature, reflecting Giuliana’s inner desires to escape her reality and go to a more natural world, like the one she recounts for Valerio later in the film.
In another scene, Giuliana, Corrado, Ugo, and his friends spend time in a room that is painted bright red, symbolizing strong emotions and passion. In a sexually charged scene, the group converses about aphrodisiacs. However, the tightness of the crowded space makes it uncomfortable for Giuliana and, by extension, the viewer.
In the final scene, Giuliana once again sees the yellow smoke emerge from the factory smokestacks. When Valerio asks her why it is yellow, she replies that it is poisonous. Animals, such as the birds that are discussed by the mother and son, have learned to avoid the poison. Humanity, on the other hand, continues to poison the environment with its smokestacks and other industrial machines. This yellow smoke seems to be a warning to humanity. The poisonous smoke has caused a lot of damage to the environment and will destroy humanity unless a shift is made to become more sustainable and better protect the earth. This was true in 1964 and is even truer today. Due to its ecological concerns, Red Desert has grown in importance.
This is not to say that Antonioni is against progress, industry, or modernity. To the contrary, Antonioni has stated that the industrial world can be beautiful. His inspiration for the film came on a visit to Ravenna. He had been there all his life. On one particular visit, he realized that Ravenna had transformed from a natural estuarine into the industrial landscape that the film so vividly depicts. Antonioni has also made it clear that the industrial landscape did not cause Giuliana’s neuroses. They simply aggravated her preexisting condition.
One of the film’s most unsettling sequences marks the culmination of Giuliana and Corrado’s mutual attraction. Giuliana seems more unsettled than ever before and Corrado consoles her sexually even though she clearly does not want it. This is one of the most uncomfortable and emotionally cold sex scenes ever put to celluloid. Antonioni uses several out of focus close-up shots to heighten the tension and discomfort for the viewer. In Corrado’s final scene in the film, Giuliana tells him that he did not help her. Corrado’s solution to Giuliana’s problems was sex, which did not help her and may have only made her more disoriented and confused.
With his dialogue perfectly dubbed in Italian, Richard Harris gives a solid, convincing performance. Like Jack Palance who starred in Jean Luc Godard’s Contempt a year earlier, Harris did not get along with his director. After an argument with Antonioni, Harris left the production and the director was forced to adjust without his leading man.
The ending of the film is as ambiguous as everything that preceded it. Giuliana is wearing the same green overcoat that she wore in the beginning of the film, suggesting that she has not made any progress. However, her comment to Valerio about the bird that has learned to avoid the yellow smoke also implies that she has begun to adapt to her environment. Antonioni said, “She may find a compromise, but the neuroses will stay with her forever. I wanted to hint at this idea of continuing sickness with the slightly unfocused images. She is in a static phase of her life” (Antonioni 6). I gathered from the film that there is hope for Giuliana, just as there is hope for the rest of humanity.
In conclusion, Red Desert is a fascinating film. It offers no easy answers. Instead, it induces the viewer to think and contemplate its complexity. It is an authentication of film as art and displays the creative possibilities of the medium. If one considers all that it has to offer beneath its surface, Red Desert can be a rewarding experience about the alienated self and one’s relationship with the modern world.
- Kevin Z. Moore, Eclipsing the Commonplace: The Logic of Alienation in Antonioni’s Cinema Film Quarterly, Vol. 48, No. 4 (Summer, 1995), pp. 22-34
- Stephen Taylor, The Red Desert: Neurosis a la Mode, The Hudson Review, Vol. 18, No. 2 (Summer, 1965), pp. 252-259
- Melvin Goldstein, The Negative Symbolic Environment in Antonioni’s “Blow-Up” Journal of Aesthetic Education, Vol. 8, No. 1, Special Issue: Film III, Morality in Film and Mass Media (Jan., 1974), pp. 27-42
- Antonioni, Michelangelo. Interview by Jean-Luc Godard. The Night, The Eclipse, The Dawn: Godard Interviews Antonioni Cahiers du Cinema Nov. 1964. Print
- Le Fanu, Mark, In This World 2010, pp. 7-16
- Forgacs, Mark, Italian film scholar. Red Desert. Audio Commentary. The Criterion Collection, 2010. DVD.
- Antonioni, Michelangelo. Interview. Les ecrans de la ville. 12 Nov. 1964. Television.
- Gandy, Matthew, Landscapes of deliquescence in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, Vol. 28, Issue 2, June 2003, pp. 218-237.
- Wood, Robin, You Freud, Me Hitchcock. Hitchcock’s Films Revisited. 15 May 2002, pp. 388-405.