Dir. Michelangelo Antonioni, Italy-France, 1964, 117 mins, in Italian with subtitles
Review by Colin Dibben
An eerie and disturbing classic from one of Italy’s greatest film directors, Red Desert explores the psychological anxieties caused by industrialization, through the story of one maladapted young woman. This is an immaculate British Film Institute restoration that foregrounds the violent, diseased colours and jarring atonal soundtrack for which the film is famous.
Giuliana (Vitti) may be the wife of an engineer, Ugo (Chionetti), but she doesn’t fit into his confident, highly coloured, highly industrialised, highly polluted world. A suicide attempt puts her in hospital. When she gets out, she takes to walking aimlessly but nervously around the industrial wastelands of her home town, the factories and the port. Sometimes she drags her young son Valerio (Bartoleschi) with her. She decides to open a shop but nothing much comes of it. A brief fling with a friend of her husband’s, Corrado (Harris), brings her to another crisis and then a resolution of sorts.
Red Desert was Antonioni’s first film in colour and, boy, those colours hurt the eyes. He’s using colour in an expressive way, not to represent things in the world but to represent Giuliana’s heightened emotional states as she looks at the world around her. This deployment of colour, as having an internal and psychological rather than an external, ‘real-world’ source, is hinted at by the out-of-focus shots that litter the film: the viewer is being slowly weaned off reality, first by abstract colours and then by Giuliana’s mental illness. According to Antonioni, there is only one scene in the whole film that uses ‘natural’ colour – unpainted landscapes – and that’s the visualization of a bedtime story which Giuliana improvises for Valerio. Antonioni had trees, grass, streets and fields painted in an attempt to create the repulsive, threatening world that Giuliana herself sees. It’s not immediately apparent that we are seeing her world view or that these polluted landscapes are at least partially manufactured by the filmmaker’s crew. Antonioni’s trick is to get the viewer tutting at pollution and gasping at some exquisite shots in ‘industrial sublime’ mode; and then envelop these elements within Giuliana’s fractured and frightened vision of the world. If you think about it, it’s more usual to do exactly the opposite in film: to move from a character’s psychological chaos to a more objective resolution of that chaos. That certainly doesn’t happen here. Yes, the ending reproduces one of the shots from the beginning, but this time it simply feels as if Giuliana’s nervous energy has gone, as if she’s steeled herself to her existence. It’s a great moment in cinema – an ambiguous leap beyond despair.
The soundtrack music is striking: industrial noises were combined with an atonal electronic score. The result will probably leave you bug-eyed and grinding your teeth. You may also be surprised by the lack of long takes in this film (long shots being an Antonioni signature): but shorter shots fit with the fractured feel of the film; they are a perceptual response to the invasive nature of the world, as Giuliana sees it.
Arguably one of the most intense and dislocating films ever made, everyone should see Red Desert at least four times – although I’d advise against back-to-back viewings. This BFI restoration is the perfect opportunity to grapple with this challenging classic.