Red Desert November 22, 2016
Red Desert (1964), the fourth collaboration between personal and professional partners Michelangelo Antonioni and Monica Vitti, is arguably their best movie. Strikingly contrasting with the aloof ghostliness of its black-and-white semi-predecessors through robust color and emotions worn on the sleeve, it is a harrowing, unnervingly quiet study of alienation that buries itself under our skin.
The film stars Vitti as Giuliana, a socially isolated housewife recovering from a recent — and traumatic — car accident. As her husband’s (Carlo Chionetti) the owner of a rural petrochemical plant in Ravenna, Italy, home is found within a drab apartment nearby the factory’s headquarters. Friends are nonexistent, entertainment is minimal; all day long does Giuliana sit in the stew that is her tortured mind, with only her young son around to keep her company. Before the aforementioned crash, her unhappiness was perhaps rendered manageable. But since has her depression invaded nearly every aspect of her life. Not a moment goes by in which she wouldn’t rather die.
In Red Desert is she at her most detached, her most miserable. She dependably acts compulsively, is prone to emotional outbursts, and isn’t unfamiliar to coming into a situation dazed and irrational. She’s the woman that makes scenes at parties, that wanders off unpredictably like an Alzheimer’s sufferer. She’s struggling to turn back into the woman she used to be — something of a glamorous catch, we assume — and is tremendously fearful that her son will be affected by her inability to escape the prison of her mind.
Salvation, however, may come in the form of Corrado (Richard Harris), a visiting business associate in the process of recruiting workers for an industrial enterprise in Argentina. Though his cool exterior suggests professional objectivity, Corrado and Giuliana are near identical in their incapacity to love, to find meaning in their respective lives. But because Corrado has adapted to the globe trotting pattern of his occupation, he’s grown accustomed to his consistent emptiness. Through therapeutic conversation and mutual understanding will his ability to function on little potentially rub off on Giuliana. But their attraction to one another could also detrimentally impact her marriage and her family life, and the woman’s hardly in a place to be much able to handle such an effect.
Following the triple punch that was his unofficial “trilogy of modernity and its discontents” (comprised of 1960’s L’Avventura, 1961’s La Notte, and 1962’s L’Eclisse), Antonioni’s Red Desert is a gorgeous afterthought of disaffection made indelible through Vitti’s bravura performance and the lush pigmentation of its photography. Said to be a meditation on the pitfalls of social adaptivity and an unconventional argument for the beauty found in things not often seen as beautiful themselves — namely industrial technology — by Antonioni himself, the film works as a fascinating glimpse inside the mind of a woman on the edge. At one point does our heroine speak of a girl she met in the hospital that unyieldingly felt like there was “no ground beneath her, like she was sliding down a slope, sinking, always on the verge of drowning.” But we’re wont to believe that she’s only afraid of admitting that that woman is herself.
Together do Antonioni and Vitti construct a tragic character persuasive in her every move — at the center of Red Desert is a protagonist so overwhelmed by her despair that she doesn’t know how to be much else besides a symbol of agony (“My hair hurts, my eyes, my throat, my mouth …” she moans at her most vulnerable), and the portrayal of that damning sorrow is so lucid we can essentially feel Giuliana’s emotional vacancy ourselves. The role stands as the most challenging of Vitti’s career. But the actress, among the most gifted in the history of cinema, is so attentive toward every detail of Giuliana’s neuroses — written or otherwise — that in front of us isn’t so much a character as the utmost effective symbol of 1960s, European ennui.
Few director/actress relationships have proven to be as successful as Antonioni and Vitti’s. Aside from the calamity that was The Mystery of Oberwald, every one of their collaborations stand as unequalled masterpieces. Vitti’s Renaissance beauty, coupled with her ethereal facility to speak volumes through even the most subtle of facial expression or the most understated of a bodily twitch, enduringly bring luminescent elegance to her and Antonioni’s partnerships. She makes Antonioni’s suggestions of alienation seem full-blooded instead of fleeting, and he makes her more stunning a figure than anything Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni could have sculpted in his lifetime. Obvious is that their personal relationship played a huge part in the triumphs of their artistic alliance and their critical and commercial prosperity — after their breakup in the late 1960s, neither were much able to recreate the successes they experienced when in the presence of one another.
Red Desert remains to be as visceral a masterstroke as it was in 1964 — it accomplishes the nearly impossible task of spotlessly matching the emotional turmoils of its characters with its scenery, and it makes dissatisfaction into something unspeakably tragic instead of ironically romantic. It’s certainly one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen. Every shot is seamlessly mounted, aesthetically harmonious; every color sings.
But mundanity does sometimes stamp Red Desert — particularly the unbearably stretched-out party scene that cements Giuliana’s instability — and it does sometimes present itself as dispassionate and maybe even aimless. I prefer L’Eclisse, the Alain Delon co-starrer centered around doomed romance in the Nuclear Age. But even its flirtations with outright boredom don’t much prevent Red Desert’s standing as a remarkable achievement within both Antonioni and Vitti’s personal oeuvres. It’s Antonioni’s most visually voluptuous feature, and it contains Vitti’s greatest, most untouchable performance. It’s a taxing masterpiece — draining and occasionally flat — but its limited array of setbacks do little to argue against the genius of its director and star. A-