Michelangelo did not quite set the world on fire with his major trilogy at the start of the '60s -- L'Avventura, La Notte and L'Eclisse -- certainly not in the sense that Godard could raise the glasses of the art world in the same period (though Godard himself looked to the Italian for guidance at times, and his influence can be seen in several of the French director's '60s films). His daring aesthetic captured alienation so well that it alienated many viewers even in the snobbier, more discerning realm of the cinephiles. Following the quick succession of the trilogy's release, Antonioni took two years off before reemerging, this time with his first color film. And if people thought his detail was precise before, they hadn't seen anything yet.
To call Red Desert a painterly film would be accurate in several ways but also a misdirection. True, Antonioni had such a precise idea in mind that he actually had fields and trees painted to achieve a certain look, but that tidbit, divorced from context, creates an image in one's head of surreal fancy, which is the far from the end result. Rather, the director paints some of the real objects to in effect heighten their reality, a paradoxical action that somehow works: without stifling the beauty of the objects he films, Antonioni manages to cast the microcosm of the plant in drab greys and dull greens.
When those colors mesh with the more tantalizing hues of painted metal and plastic, however, Antonioni crafts a world that seems so different from Earth. For all our talk of interstellar travel, humanity has already changed this planet into something unrecognizable, which the director stresses over the opening credits, blurry shots of factories coated in jaundiced fog supplemented by a score of industrial, electronic beeps, whistles and groans as a lone female voice warbles up and down as if being tuned with a dial. Set in an industrial shipyard constructing all sorts of power plants and other structures, Red Desert creates a zoned-out atmosphere even when the image snaps into clarity, showing polluted gray skies and striking workers who can barely be discerned from the dull surroundings as giant vents belch flames and nuclear cooling towers sit unmoving like giant ceramics, holding back material that could destroy the countryside. Nearby, the rock smolders as if volcanic rock and sludge grimes the blackened water, and at times the area takes on a hellish appearance. Even the fog that blankets the shipyard compounds this, as it offers no chance to glance at anything outside this grinding industrial nightmare, and ships occasionally punch through to bring more souls to the area, though we don't see them carrying people back to the rest of the world.
To this bizarre yet real place comes Giuliana (Monica Vitti), the wife of an engineer who moves out with him and their young, gifted son. Having been recently released from a mental hospital after an attempted suicide, Giuliana differs from Vitti's earlier performances by her immediately visible madness. As if the final product of the collaborations of the director and actress, Giuliana is less a person than a collection of tics searching for meaning. Unlike her husband and child, she does not understand how to operate in an industrial environment, and her inability to do so leads her to a crisis in which she questions even basic functions. "I feel like my eyes are all wet," she exclaims at one point. "What do people expect me to do with my eyes? What am I supposed to look at?" Placed in a world without identifiable symbols and a sense of navigability, Giuliana cannot act, and thus she has no life to speak of.
Matching her existential crisis, albeit in a more subdued manner, is Corrado Zeller (Richard Harris), the friend and co-worker of Giulana's husband, Ugo. Where Ugo reacts to his wife's instability by trying to place it out of sight and ignore her darker side, Corrado stares her madness head-on and does not treat her as a freak. Harris gives a rooted performance that some have dismissed as stiff, but the secret of his work here is that Antonioni flips his traditional gender roles, making Corrado the vision of quiet neurosis and Giuliana the one in full-on breakdown. "Sometimes I feel like I have no right to be where I am," he confides in Giuliana. "Perhaps that's why I keep moving." He knows his way around the area, at least in business/administrative matters, but he feels no more comfortable than Giuliana.
Together, each finds someone who at last understands the other, and the hope for stability arises. Giuliana smiles for the first time around Corrado, who feels secure to share some of his misgivings about the world with her. "Deep down, one doesn't really know what one believes in," he says, a statement that seems less declarative than mournful. Yet the two do not give in to each other completely, for this is not a love story. Giuliana cannot quite pin down what she's afraid to face (after all, what she's terrified of is everything), and Corrado masks a deeper guilt and regret for some unexplained event or aspect of his life. Harris had some of the saddest eyes in the business, and he uses them to great effect here, a tiny peephole into a darker realm that mars his gentlemanly, attracting rapport. When Giuliana has another meltdown and tries to leave the island, she asks him to come before thinking of her husband, saying, "You're a part of me now." That phrasing, made before the two share even a kiss, reveals just how desperately she depends on the man to help her find some sanity in the world.
Though the two do not make sexual advances until the end of the film, sexual tension dominates the film, and not simply between them. Giuliana, Corrado, Ugo and several other colleagues meet in a shack, where conversation turns to aphrodisiacs. Then, the situation morphs into an orgy, but an orgy as only Antonioni could conceive it. Seeking to release their buried tensions and insecurities, they group paws over each other, but before anyone can have sex, they all devolve into giggles and different chat subjects, substituting more inane talk for the more cathartic distraction of group sex. Subtly, the characters understand this, and they release the pent-up energy by jovially tearing pieces of the wooden shack apart to burn them for heat, seeking a heat source to help vent their own raised body temperatures. Giuliana attracts the attention for her outward madness, but there's something unsettling about a group of people giving into carnal desires without even fulfilling them.
That the room where these people engage in their "orgy" is red is possibly the clearest and simplest use of color on a subtextual level in the film. I don't know of a movie that uses color to such specific ends as this. Giuliana arrives at the start of the film wearing a green overcoat that stands sharply against the grays that surround her, while her son wears red. Antonioni uses such splashes of vivid color to communicate brief snatches of hope. The green of an garden growing among the torn-up soil of the construction zone, the snatch of red pipeline, the blue bottles that capture Corrado's attention during a meeting and the blue stripe on the wall that he follows with his eyes as if seeing if it will lead out the door and somewhere else, all of them gorgeous and tantalizing. Godard owed a great deal to Antonioni before and after this picture -- I can now see L'Avventura in bits of Vivre sa vie, with its moments of inaction and quiet existentialist despair, and this in 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, another film about a woman lost in a modernizing world always under construction. Here, however, the Italian seems to reciprocate the flattery, using the same brightly colored metals and plastics that informed Godard's Pop Art aesthetic and bridging them with the thematic weight of the story in a way that links the colors to the emotion of the film where Godard's usage was more concerned with aesthetic radicalism.
This becomes clearer in the way that Antonioni also brings out the beauty of the gray, steel world of the industrial zone. The girders that rise up dozens of stories, erecting massive structures in a short amount of time, help create objects that are impressive and architecturally appealing even at their most utilitarian and spare. A robot toy that looks as if it's made from such material stands with lit eyes at the edge of the child's bed at night as if guarding him, and the rudimentary nature of the toy, made out of those old Erector sets for budding young engineers, serves as but the precursor for future models that will be far more sleek, efficient and even lifelike. Dan Schneider rightly pegs the film not as being influenced by Impressionism but Precisionism, an off-shot of Cubism that redirected that artform back to realistic depictions. Noted American artists like Edward Hopper and Georgia O'Keefe created works in the subgenre, but its most important artist was Charles Demuth, whose hyper-real depictions of industrial subjects could be inserted among the frames of Red Desert and look right at home, especially when the more vibrant colors meet the drabber tones and create a nearly surreal effect.
But what of those blurry shots? Well, those do not show Giuliana's unfocused view of the world so much as the rest of the world's confusion over her. She appears in shallow focus against blurs around her because she stands out and the world doesn't know how to make her a part of the rest of the blur. Giuliana, for her part, would love to fit in; at the end, as her doomed relationship with Corrado falls apart, she tells him, "There's something terrible about reality, but I don't know what it is. No one will tell me." The out-of-focus shots are but one way Antonioni uses his exacting blocking and focal lenses to tell the story. That coat that Giuliana wears at the beginning communicates her character not just through color but how she wears it: buttoned-up to her neck, the coat represents not only how distinct she is from the herd but how tightly wound she is.
Just as Antonioni stressed the beauty of the old world in L'Avventura, so too does he emphasize the potential for the new planet being constructed from the forged contents of the previous one. He does not shy away from the pollutants caused by this upheaval, but he knows that the problem with a modern world is not that it is beyond us but that we must adapt our emotional state along with our intellectual advancement. The casting of Harris alone hints at his optimistic vision of what modernity could bring: since he has to dub Richard's Irish brogue with an authentically Italian voice, Antonioni could have saved himself (and, to be honest, Harris, who had an infamous fight with the director during production) the trouble and just cast an Italian. But Harris' presence hints at the dissolution of national boundaries in a world that will eventually be linked by wireless signals that allow for instant communication across the world; paradoxically, the metal, plastic structure of the post-industrial world expose the artificiality of man-made national boundaries. What matters most is whether people can empathize with each other, something made clear at the end when Giuliana finally pours out her grief to a sailor who doesn't speak Italian; he doesn't know what she's saying, but he kindly sits there and lets her vent, and she finds a small amount of closure in this, allowing for the possibility of moving forward by the film's end. (It might also explain why the film is known by its English translation Red Desert instead of the original Il deserto rosso.)
But perhaps the most piercing and beautiful moment of the film comes when Giuliana's son falls ill, suddenly unable to walk and unresponsive to reflex tests when Giuliana tries to prove he's faking. Scared her son has polio, Giuliana doesn't realize -- because no one could -- that her son is suffering the same as she is, and his body is shutting down because he cannot find an emotional link to this world either. Bed-ridden, the boy asks his mother for a story, and she begins to invent a tale to which Antonioni cuts. We see a girl on a beach untouched by industrialization, swimming in an ocean of overwhelming blue. As the story continues, we can clearly see that the protagonist of Giuliana's tale is Giuliana herself, but not in the sense of childhood remembrance but of an idealized vision of what she wanted from life.
One day, the girl spots a sailing ship off her island, unlike any sailboat that ever blew past the area. Intrigued, she swims out to the boat, but it suddenly changes course and leaves. Having been subtly rejected by this vision of human progress, the girl swims back to shore, where she suddenly hears an angelic voice singing throughout the island. She combs the place looking for the source of the voice, but only when she surveys and truly studies the island, noting for the first time how its rocks "were like flesh," does she understand that the island itself is singing.
Giuliana's story clearly shows us how badly she wants to return to a simpler way of living, when machines did not make man obsolete and sensuality was pure instead of some creepy parlor game. Giuliana cannot hear the music anymore, if she ever could, which explains her despair. But there is hope in this film: after hearing the story, the son walks again. As much as Giuliana's story promoted her own hatred of modernity, the boy now hears the singing around him, and he will be among the generation to adapt to this new environment. For all of the aesthetic perfection of Antonioni's work, it is moments like this that show his true mastery: Red Desert is a film that uses every ounce of its visual form, especially its color, to convey emotion. I wonder what it says about the way we all watch film that such a movie had to wait until 2010 for enough attention to warrant a solid home video release.