Red Desert (1964) opens with images of industrial architecture, immense pipes and strange towers seen from some distance in rack focus, rendered as ghostly, uninhabitable monuments, as though our eyes need adjust to these unprecedented apparitions of a new kind of landscape. Our visual lives were already inundated with the products of such places, but Red Desert lingers at the source of these products. The film’s setting changes with each sequence, yet the striking palate modulates only slightly. Collaborating with cinematographer Carlo di Palma, director Michelangelo Antonioni introduced colour into his work with this film, and it’s as though he strove to introduce each one at a time. If Red Desert still arrests us through its use of colour and design alone, it may be because each and every shape and colour is photographed as though only just discovered. Our world has changed, this film tells us, and the change is total.
Guiliana (Monica Vitti) enters this landscape with her son Valerio (Valerio Bartoleschi) in fuzzy green and orange coats, colours so vivid they seem otherworldly here. Giuliana herself seems transported from another, very different place, still reeling from the taxing journey. Who is this woman? She seems well-to-do, vaguely resembles a young Barbara Streisand, yet she approaches a stranger lunching near the site of a strike and pleads with him to buy his already half-eaten sandwich. She then scurries off to consume the sandwich ravenously, and in private. As we get to know and try to make sense of such behaviour, we might surmise that her desire for the sandwich derives from some displaced urge for human contact, yet her need to eat it unseen reveals an inability to follow-through with this puzzling attempt at intimacy. It all seems very peculiar, but here’s the catch: neurotic as she appears, Giuliana is perhaps the most normal person in Red Desert.
Giuliana’s husband Ugo (Carlo Chionetti) works for the company who erected those spectral chemical plants. Compared to his wife Ugo seems perfectly amiable, socially adept. When he smiles he looks like Steve Buscemi. He expresses concern for Giuliana, who has recently survived an auto accident, yet he seems incapable of dealing with her hysteria. He clumsily attempts to seduce her to no effect. Along comes Corrado (Richard Harris), a fellow industrialist consulting Ugo in his search for workers to take to Patagonia. Corrado is undergoing his own existential crisis and seems drawn to Giuliana. He tells her he keeps moving around, that he feels out of place everywhere he goes. He’s embodied, rather fittingly, by an Irish actor, though he’s meant to be Italian. Does he really relate to her? Or does he simply find her vulnerability appealing, perhaps erotically inviting? He speaks as though trying to comfort her yet too often just sounds condescending and pompous. Among the most fascinating elements in Red Desert is Giuliana’s slow emergence as its most powerful character. She may be paranoid and neurotic, almost childlike in Vitti’s timid, occasionally playful performance, but where Corrado waxes philosophical and romanticizes his search for meaning, it’s Giuliana who genuinely searches, urgently scouring the desert-like world of Red Desert for some place where she won’t feel so hopelessly ungrounded, unmoored as the cargo ships that continually slide into frame, and haunted by the electronic drones that permeate the soundtrack.
Red Desert is a film in which landscape possesses an overwhelming influence on the human psyche (and vice versa). Its images of environmental devastation are not to be taken as lament—they’re far too aesthetically charged, drawing upon the work of contemporaneous painters such as Morandi, Pollock, and Rothko. This wintry post-natural world is in one sense observed objectively, without sentiment. How its landscape effects the characters, or rather, how it’s already effected the characters, most of whom, like Ugo or Valerio, are by now fully assimilated, is the essential subject. Red Desert capitalizes on the sense of modern alienation and bourgeois repression cultivated in Antonioni’s preceding trilogy of L’avventura (60), La notte (61) and L’eclisse (62). This lineage is most apparent in the famous sequence where Giuliana, Ugo, Corrado, and three others partake in a failed orgy in a seaside hut. One of the women tears apart the bright red walls of the hut for firewood—a gesture that might also be a small homage to Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel (62), which also satirizes bourgeois manners. Yet this film takes a bold step forward, advancing on Antonioni’s established themes and style, not only in its distinctive audiovisual design, which looks forward to David Lynch’s Eraserhead (76) or the ecologically-themed photography of Edward Burtynsky, amongst many other important works of art, but also in its almost perverse pushing of the boundaries of drama—Red Desert is endlessly fascinating, richly detailed, mysterious, and hypnotic, but it would be misleading to call it in any sense entertaining.
Criterion’s new release of Red Desert on DVD and Blu-ray is itself a strange and beautiful object, designed to highlight the film’s most chilling and engaging images and garnished with supplements that offer plentiful insights into the making and reception of the film while, wisely, never going so far as to pretend there could be anything like a definitive interpretation of its bizarre and enigmatic story, one that still seems to speak to us from some under-explored place that both surrounds us and remains invisible.