I’ve always loved the elusively intricate and beautiful films of the Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni. According to Antonioni his films “are born in the same way that poetry is born for poets,” evolving from “everything that we read, hear, think, and see.” At a certain moment it all turns into concrete images, and then the images are shaped into stories.
Antonioni often explores a particular land- or cityscape, like the island in L’Avventura or Milan in La Notte. His characters’ emotional lives are evoked through their reaction to the visual world—architectural forms, objects in a room, other people—rather than conveyed through dialogue or exposition. He has such great faith in the suggestiveness and power of the image that he rarely uses music in his films, though ambient sound plays a significant role: the wind blowing in the desert, rustling trees in a green London park, the cacophony of the Rome stock exchange. His images never project a simple message but rather examine, in Antonioni’s words, “the thoughts and feelings that motivate a man or woman in their march to happiness or death.”
The Brooklyn Academy of Music recently revived The Red Desert (1964), which like Antonioni’s other films centers on people living in a state of existential desolation–financially comfortable men and women drifting about in a mechanized world where human connection is difficult and they feel trapped. The film is set in Ravenna, Italy, focusing on its industrial wasteland rather than its Byzantine churches and mosaics. Monica Vitti—who was a key figure in Antonioni’s informal trilogy of L’Avventura (1960), La Notte (1961) and L’Eclisse (1962)—gives a brilliant, realistic performance as Giuliana, all tics, erratic movements, huddling against walls, and silences. Giuliana has just come out of a hospital after a minor car accident, which has supposedly traumatized her. But we soon discover that the trauma preceded the accident, which was a result of Giuliana’s attempt at suicide. Giuliana’s husband, a contented and superficially pleasant power plant engineer, is not unkind, but he has little capacity for empathy or delving beneath the surface of things. He can only respond to her feelings by treating her like a sick child.
Giuliana suffers from estrangement and hysteria. She says that there is “something terrible about reality,” that “our bodies are separate,” and even dreams that she’s sinking in quicksand. Giuliana wanders in a disconnected, agitated manner through an often out-of-focus cityscape. The setting is both seen and heard: plumes of smoke emitted by smokestacks, detritus festering in the mud, dead gray trees suffocated by petroleum, mysterious tankers sounding foghorns and moving down polluted waterways filled with chemical waste. The industrial environment looks poisonous, and pounding sounds and electronic music reinforce Giuliana’s feelings of oppression. Yet in an interview Antonioni said, “I’m not against progress, it’s inexorable, despite the disruption it brings.” He finds beauty in the pipes, turbines, chimneys, gates, and the lines and curves of factories.
Antonioni makes masterful use of color in the film, his first not in black-and-white. The grays and whites of a hotel corridor evoke a sterile solitude, in sharp contrast to the erotic red walls of a shack along the water. Yet despite sharp color contrasts, the atmosphere seems permanently enveloped in a thick fog in which nearby people often go out of focus. In one scene Giuliana stands on a pier in the foreground and then loses sight of her husband and his friends as each one is engulfed by the mist–a characteristically powerful image conveying Giuliana’s alienation.
An old friend of Giuliana’s husband named Corrado Zeller (a dubbed Richard Harris) quietly begins to pursue her, observing and listening to her with more sensitivity than her husband is capable of. Corrado is the only person with whom she speaks about what she is feeling as she “shifts endlessly downward,” overwhelmed by what is. Corrado is, like Giuliana’s husband, an engineer. Like Giuliana, he suffers from a feeling of dislocation, restlessly searching for but also running from answers. In the end he takes advantage of Giuliana’s extreme anxiety by having sex with her. There is no joy or catharsis in this jagged, alienated encounter; their faces aren’t seen, just parts of their bodies looking like inanimate objects. She knows he doesn’t love her and cannot save or even soothe her. In the scene that follows, Antonioni has her painfully reveal her plight to a foreign sailor who doesn’t understand a word she says.
In one particular scene, Antonioni seems to break from the main narrative of Giuliana’s wanderings and interactions with her husband and Corrado, though really the scene is a significant part of it. She tells a tale to her son about a young girl alone on a beach near the sea. It looks idyllic and sensual–saturated colors, a warm sun, and clear blue skies–visually the opposite of the ugly gray world that Giuliana inhabits. But an unknown sweet voice, a mysterious empty boat, and a sense of aloneness make the sand and sea utopia somewhat airless and a touch frightening.
The Red Desert does not suggest a single level of interpretation, whether feminist, Marxist, existentialist, or psychoanalytical. Giuliana can be viewed in a number of ways, some of which overlap: as an unfulfilled woman with little ego, without a commitment to work or an interest in anything else, including being a mother; as a neurotic dominated by fear and insecurity, continually crying for help; as a subject who perceives the toxic environment around her and is incapable of adjusting to it; and as an inhabitant of a world where we are all in despair, cut off from human connection and our sense of self. Giuliana struggles both with who she is and with the nature of the world.
Antonioni’s work defies schematic interpretation and eschews social messages. He has said that his films “are documents, not of finished thought, but of thought in the making.” They are grounded in the poetry of images, not abstract intellectualism. Despite this, The Red Desert is undeniably linked to a northern Italy that by the 1960s had modernized and become more affluent. Yet in the ensuing years few directors have emulated Antonioni’s imagination and style, and when they did their work looked like a pale copy of the master.
A number of recent films, like Melancholia, Take Shelter, and The Road, trade in apocalyptic imagery; in others like No Country for Old Men, America appears as a country where asocial evil is triumphant. The vision of existential alienation of The Red Desert hasn’t suddenly disappeared, but directors are turning to more violent and extreme images of contemporary life. The Red Desert existed in a more nuanced and slower-paced realm–one wholly true to Antonioni’s vision.
Leonard Quart is the coauthor of the fourth edition of American Film and Society Since 1945 and is a contributing editor of Cineaste.