It has been said that Red Desert (Il Deserto Rosso) is Michelangelo Antonioni’s masterpiece. Maybe so. But each of his previous three has also been called his masterpiece. Antonioni himself made a shift with this film, but it was subtle enough that some have called it the end of his “tetralogy” instead of the first film to follow his famous trilogy. Aside from “Antoniennui” style, the main bit of continuity Red Desert shares with his previous three films is Monica Vitti. But as Antonioni had to point out, her character is the “exact opposite” of her character in L’Eclisse. Whereas in that film she played an internally driven character who could not commit to any relationship, her character in Red Desert is affected externally and is actually content within her marriage.
As the title implies, color is of great importance in the film. When Jean-Luc Godard interviewed Antonioni for Cahiers du Cinema, he asked if perhaps color replaced verbal language as the primary means of communication. Antonioni confirmed that it was. His first color film, Antonioni apparently painted both the man-made and natural surroundings to suit the mood properly for each scene. He wondered if it wouldn’t be more accurate to speak of “painting” a film rather than “writing” a film. Strikingly, the one scene in which Antonioni uses colors in the standard way is a story that Giuliana tells her son. The story is about a prepubescent girl (significant, considering the sort of scarring that Giuliana has experience in her adult life) who finds her own private beach. The water is transparent, the sky is blue, the rocks themselves appear human, and the only other sign of life is a beautiful frigate on the horizon. This contrasts with the rest of the film’s ultra-industrial setting, dark yet cold colors, polluted landscapes, and absence of real vitality. Where most filmmakers would use realistic lighting and colors for everything but the story sequence, Antonioni reverses it.
It has been pointed out by man, including Antonioni himself, that the film has to do with Giuliana’s inability to adapt. She lives in a world that is technological and industrial, but she longs for a more primitive and natural setting. She desires innocence, but the world is stained/colored by man. Antonioni’s point is to demonstrate the beauty is artificiality, or in “plastic,” as he and Godard have said. That there is beauty is a landscape never touched by man is intuitive. So he shoots scaffolds, beams, cement walls, smoke, and factories in a way as to exploit their extraordinary nature. Things like this are not found in the natural world. The world is moving in a technologically progressive direction, and we shouldn’t complain about that. Rather, we should adapt and embrace. Antonioni did well to point out that the problem with the world is not the technology, but humanity. All too easy it is to point our fingers at our own creations rather than back at ourselves, the real culprits of the malaise that dominates characters like Giuliana.
Antonioni points out a certain irony in the humanity-technology relationship. Almost whenever the two are pictures in the same shot, the human character is dwarfed by the machine or building. The person is always positioned at the mercy of man’s creation. The only exceptions are with Giuliana’s young son, whose robot is stuck in the “on” position while he sleeps (thus bumping into his bed constantly).
Many have also commented on Giuliana’s last words in the film. When her son points to the yellow smoke above the factory stacks, she tells him that the smoke is poisonous. Her son asks if birds die when they fly into the smoke. She replies that the birds learn not to fly into it. By pointing this out to her son, Giuliana begins to realize the solution to her paranoid schizophrenia. There are aspects of worldly existence to appreciate from a distance. A certain degree of interaction can be unhelpful and paralyzing. What is most remarkable to me about these final lines in the film is that they are so unique when compared to the trilogy. Antonioni comes much closer to actually answering the question or offering a solution in Red Desert than he did in L’Avventura, La Notte, or L’Eclisse. Certainly his next film, Blow-Up, offers anything but certainty in the end. And to be sure, Giuliana is not experiencing certainty or answers as much as an epiphany that her anguish can be avoided and perhaps even cured. For Antonioni, this is a strikingly bold statement.
Notes: opening credits: out of focus; barren, industrial; soprano singing. Camera slowly closes in on factories. Flames expelled from stack – continuity from ending of L’Eclisse? She buys 1/2-eaten panino – child doesn’t want any. Flame in background. Pan of blackened landscape, from industrial pollution – still smoking; garbage. Personless shots of factories. Married to important factory employer, but no food? Husband: “She always seems distracted when driving.” Much red from rust – matches Giuliana’s hair. Smoke/steam pours of of factory as two men watch; no explanation, but they whisper. Darkness: night and day. Husband tries to assure her of her temperature: “It’s normal.” He draws her close twice, she pulls away. She wants cool colors in her shop, to set apart pottery she will sell. She seeks out white walls to stand against; contrast, alienation. She sits next to cart – conveys lack of balance. Door frames. Huge scaffolds of red pipes. She wanders from crowds; prefers isolation. Industrial landscape different from natural one in L’Avventura? Dockhouse scene: red coming from inside small room – coldish white on outside; mattress is floor inside; upon entering, they only read, hang out; too bored for activity; aphrodisiac; she enters, is drawn only to mirror inside; “What do you feel” “Not much”; they all fall asleep. Two people in same scene often facing diff. directions. “You ask what you should watch. I ask how I should live. It’s the same thing.” As they watch through window a ship loading/unloading. Fear of infectiosu disease on boat sends her running away with others following. Four people disappear from her sight as fog rolls in; she panics, possible attempts suicide again? Boy’s drops: 1+1=1. 1st man in Antonioni who begins to understand? But he fails her – Corrado. “Why do I always need others?” Violating 180-degree rule constantly while in bedroom with Corrado. Shrouds herself in white sheet – red hair stands out – connection with dockhouse and red room. Writhing as if in pain. Man fails her – sickness of Eros. Though he is there, she wakes up alone. Dispassionate shots. Coda from beginning: Giuliana and son wandering around outside of factory. They exit the frame; shot remains on factory with industrial noises and yellow smoke.