‘You ask what you should watch. I ask how I should live. It’s the same thing.’
Sometimes the best duos in film are lovers. It worked so well with Jean-Luc Godard and his muse Anna Karina. And roughly at the same time in Italy, we had Michelangelo Antonioni and his lover Monica Vitti, a breathtaking woman who shined so bright in his films, and for good reason. And in 1964 she made the film Red Desert, a stunning look at the industrialization that was occurring in Italy at the time and is Antonioni’s first color film, which he takes glorious advantage of.
Giuliana (Monica Vitti) is a young mother and wife who is recovering from a monthlong hospital stay due to an attempted suicide, which she somehow concealed from her husband Ugo (Carlo Chionetti), who is a hotshot engineer at the power plant. He doesn’t really care for her emotional turmoil and would rather go through his day without that burden, so Giuliana falls for her husband’s co-worker, Corrado Zeller (Richard Harris), a globe trotting charmer. Sadly she stays withdrawn from Corrado as well, even though he is empathetic to her pain and doesn’t take to physical pleasure, even though she might truly yearn for it.
Monica Vitti was the perfect actress for Antonioni, first in 1960’s L’avventura and 1962’s L’eclisse (both available from Criterion) and this is no exception. The pain, the turmoil, the anguish throughout this film that she is suffering is as intense, especially with the cold backdrop of the power plant and the smoke stacks, with flames bursting through, is something to behold. Vitti is almost a piece of the scenery, with her bright clothing and her hip hairstyle, while the commercial and sterile look of the surrounding area and even their apartment itself, makes for a dizzying display of muted colors. The grays and blacks are as much a part of this film as the actual players, and seeing him use the character of Giuliana as a central point, we follow her through this film, wondering if she’ll ever open up or just continue this pattern of depression.
Again, I don’t want to beat a dead horse, but the term ‘artist’ comes up again in this review, but how could I not use that comparison when speaking of Antonioni and his use of color for the first time? He would go as far as painting the backgrounds to his choosing, even coloring trees and grass different colors to fit the scene and the feeling that he was alluding to. The pipes are another element of this film, with their sharp reds showcasing the anxiety Giuliana feels, even though she has a man in her life that truly understands what she’s going through and wants to help her through it while her own marriage is falling apart.
Many think the backgrounds are too harsh, alienating the viewer, but one has to look at it a bit further. Antonioni is showing his appreciation and the beauty of the industrial environment and a person’s attempt to adapt to this world. He’s gone on to say that it was about someone adjusting to the world around them, and Giuliana is continously trying to adjust to her own environment and to the relationships she’s formed with two men that love her. Her disconnection is something many have felt before, and we stay with her throughout, hoping she’ll find her own identity. It being set in and around a power plant is irrelevent, but Antonioni uses it to its full affect to keep the story going forward.
Criterion once again brings out all the big guns for their Blu-ray release of Red Desert. With their usual pristine transfer and updated English subtitle translation, they also have a great commentary by Italian film scholar David Forgacs, archival interviews with Antonioni and Vitti, two short documentaries by Antonioni (Gente del Po and N.U.), dailies from the original production, the film’s trailer and a booklet featuring an essay by film writer Mark Le Fanu, Antonioni writings on Gente del Po and N.U. and a fitting reprinting of an interview of Antonioni by Jean-Luc Godard himself.
Red Desert is one of many films that if it wasn’t for the Criterion Collection, I might not have had the urge to seek out to watch. But seeing this film and knowing of Antonioni’s other films, I have yet to be disappointed by his work. One of, if not the greatest Italian modernist directors, I wonder if films such as The Passenger and Blow-Up might be entering the collection down the line? If so, they will be a perfect fit within the collection by a director whose films get better with age.