“There’s something terrible about reality, but I don’t know what it is. No one will tell me.” – Giuliana
Red Desert was Antonioni’s first endeavor after his remarkable early 60s trilogy of L’avventura, La notte and L’eclisse, which was a cornerstone of the 60s European art-film movement. The films have been called studies in modern anxiety and ennui in which Antonioni depicts characters lost and adrift amidst an uncertain modernity. L’avventura dealt with the unexplained disappearance of a woman, a disappearance that inverts the titular meaning from an external adventure to an internal one in which the characters examine their own empty lives. La notte turns a microscope on the disintegration of a marriage. It was the least experimental of the trilogy with a largely linear narrative that was nonetheless intense in its concentrated focus. L’eclisse was certainly Antonioni’s most daring experiment; more of a tone poem or essay film that radically broke the rules of continuity editing, building associations with objects which Antonioni would bring together in the end in the cinematic equivalent of a fugue.
In Red Desert Antonioni borrows elements from all three. From L’avventura he takes the expressiveness of vast landscapes that act as representations of the characters’ inner turmoil, substituting its coastal beaches, rocks and buildings with depictions of industrial desolation—a depiction that’s often been misunderstood. Many interpret it as representing the destruction of nature and the cause of Giuliana’s fragile sanity, but the story of Giuliana’s breakdown being associated with a traumatic car crash (one in which she wasn’t injured) doesn’t quite seem to gel with that theory. Giuliana’s psychological trauma lies more in her inability to adapt to modernity, rather than some inherent evil in modernity itself. Indeed, Antonioni seems to find a great deal of beauty in the film’s industrial landscapes, and even the stretches of burnt and blackened land, obsidian pools, smokestacks belching poison, pipes that breathe enveloping fog and networks of geometric steel seem to have a sort of stunned dignity to them.
From L’eclisse Antonioni maintains that sense of daring cinematic experimentation, but adds an entirely new dimension with his revolutionary use of color. People have often called Red Desert “painterly,” but that seems to overly generalize and therefore minimize the breadth of Antonioni’s achievement. The film is awash in flatly colored surfaces, like the pure white of a hotel room that resembles a hospital ward where Giuliana’s white gown marks her as a patient while Ugo’s white robe marks him as a doctor. Antonioni uses color abstractly, cutting into and through the frame, seemingly fragmenting the usual homogeneity of desaturated whites, grays, blacks and cool blues and greens. This acts as a potent visual corollary for Giuliana’s delicate grip on reality where illusions jut out of her psyche as those colors and shapes do in the frame. Antonioni frequently enhances this effect with telephoto lenses that flatten the image, creating dense, out of focus areas that violently mesh foreground and background into distorted representations of the dissolution and chaos that enfolds Giuliana. When Antonioni does revert to normal and wide lenses and large depth-of-fields, the images are almost always those of barren industrial wastelands that diminish its characters into objective miniatures.
Red Desert is, in a sense, a visual representation of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”, which is a poem rife with characters bewailing their isolation, only to learn they’re surrounded by other individuals. In that sense, it’s also important to note Giuliana’s relationships with her husband, Ugo (Carlo Chionetti), her potential lover, Corrado (Richard Harris), and her son. Ugo and Corrado are characters already assimilated into this world and their inability to meaningfully connect to her is a result of that. Corrado, who merely fell into the business, is able to get closest in connecting with Giuliana. The centerpiece of the film is a 20-minute scene involving a get-together at the pier-side shack of Corrado’s friend, Max (Aldo Grotti). Here we have a glimmer of hope that perhaps Corrado and Giuliana can connect and perhaps Giuliana is recovering. But even here she’s haunted by illusory sounds and visions that seem to clash against the reality of everyone else.
In the same way Antonioni closed L’eclisse with a visual fugue full of the film’s motifs, he opens Red Desert by cutting between abstract, out-of-focus images of factors, a montage accompanied by synthesized sound effects as well as a small, lilting, operatic female voice that wavers as if being tuned up and down (the same tune we hear in Giuliana’s dream). These elements violently clash against each other, vividly establishing the sense of unease with the zeitgeist. The sound effects, especially, will become a refrain for Giuliana. They accompany the film’s lone sex scene between her and Corrado, which modulates between her face and body in shallow-focus close-ups, hearing that unsettling, indefinite, droning buzz with Corrado in deep-focus mid-shots and no sound at all. Antonioni’s editing also becomes extremely elliptical here and elsewhere as he condenses and confuses temporal and spatial linearity. Though the film isn’t as extreme in its experimental montage as L’eclisse it perhaps makes more judicious use of those ellipses which aren’t quite as emotionally alienating.
Giuliana’s story to her son is notable in how it stands in stark contrast to the rest of the film. Her story involves a girl who finds her own private island. She goes there to escape adults (finding kids who pretend to be adults) until one day she meets a mysterious ghost ship and hears an inexplicable voice singing among the rocks. The sequence is like a pastoral daydream of paradise, an Eden amidst the hellish earth that Giuliana has been devoured by throughout the film. It’s all the more remarkable then to consider that it’s the only scene in the film shot without any visual manipulations; there are no filters over the lenses, no artificial burning or painting of anything in front of it, no use of the technicolor film to make certain colors unnaturally vivid. Giuliana’s dream is of a remote nature far away from the suffocating modernity. It’s significant in many ways, especially in how it returns to the film’s overarching motifs of ships, water, and sound, of visual and aural apparitions that signify reality and sanity slipping away. When her son’s question breaks the dream’s spell, Giuliana is forced back into reality and from there quickly descends into a waking nightmare.
Red Desert is undeniably a world of machines in which people are either integrated as cogs or otherwise exist as viruses to be expelled. An early shot shows men in a factory watching over dials that seems to allude to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, another film about people being reduced to robotic working armies. Giuliana’s dream about a girl who disliked kids her own age because they pretended to be adults can be seen in her own son who is already playing with robots and chemical sets. In one memorable scene Giuliana awakes from a nightmare, goes into her son’s room and observes a toy robot rolling back and forth across the floor. Whether it’s meant to be a benign guardian or a malevolent force is left up to the viewer. Later, he shows her how one-plus-one can equal one when you combine two drops of liquid together. He also takes to pretending to be paralyzed, perhaps to get attention, or perhaps in preparation for his own life as an insensitive, robotic worker within the system.
Another key scene with Giuliana’s son finds her husband showing him a wind-up top that can’t fall over because, like a ship, it has a gyroscope in it that keeps it level even on water. This will become a key motif for Giuliana, who reveals to Corrado that when she was in a mental institution she frequently had a dream that solid ground would move underneath her and she was sliding into nothing. There’s almost a paradoxical inversion of the idea that solid land could be so unsure, while something floating on the water could be so steadfast. Giuliana’s constant visions of ships and boats seem to symbolize her desire to escape. But the quaint and inviting, if haunted, ship from her story is transformed into hulking, mutated, frightening behemoths in reality. When she finally finds her chance to go aboard one she simply can’t leave her son and husband behind. Red Desert ends where it began, with Giuliana suggestively telling her son that birds have learned to stay away from the poisonous gas that the towers emit. Antonioni leaves it ambiguous as to whether Giuliana has made any progress, but it would be unfair by now to expect the director to spell anything out for us.
Perhaps no filmmaker from the early 60s has had such a diffuse influence as Antonioni, from the contemporary absurdist takes of Taiwan’s Tsai Ming-liang on modernistic isolation, to the use of long takes and vast landscapes of Theo Angelopoulos. Red Desert’s influence alone can be seen in films like Lynch’s Eraserhead and Todd Haynes’ Safe (the focus on isolation amidst industrialization); Kubrick’s 2001 (the sterility of the bleach-white interiors) and Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits (the vivid use of color). Red Desert feels like the perfect summation of Antonioni’s cinema, an impressive cinematic experiment and visual tone poem that blurs the line between reality and dream, sanity and insanity, while retaining a sharp focus on characters and storytelling. It may also be Antonioni’s most humanistic and emotionally naked film. It is the story of an individual separated from reality because reality has separated from nature, and of the psychological breakdown resulting from an inability to adapt to, and process, a reality that seems more artificial than the nature in one’s dreams.