Monday, May 9, 2011

Red Desert

Michelangelo Antonioni is the cinema's greatest chronicler of the modern era's disconnection and dehumanization, of the existential dilemmas created by the modern way of life. His first color film, Red Desert, is yet another entry in his peak period's run of intense, stylistically profound variations on that signature theme. The film is set in a modern industrial zone, not an urban center but a desolate country harbor colonized by smoke-spewing factories, massive ships that drift by in the omnipresent fog, oil drilling platforms out in the ocean, barely visible from shore. The landscape of the region is a cold, foggy, smoke-filled wasteland, a bleak territory of small mud-puddle lakes with sleek black surfaces, chemicals glistening in multiple colors, green scum leaving behind a thick crust on the shore. It's always overcast. There's always a thick fog hanging in the air, making everything fuzzy and gray. The credits roll over a series of out-of-focus shots of the region, of smokestacks and gray factory buildings and grim landscapes that nearly look post-apocalyptic in their indistinct desolation. The first in-focus shot, after the credits, is a closeup of a plume of fire erupting from a factory smokestack. The symbolism could not be more obvious: this is Hell, a strange Hell where the air is cold and the only heat comes from the factories' never-ending industrial processes, from the burning of chemicals.

Wandering through this landscape is Giuliana (Monica Vitti), her crisp green coat a striking contrast against the colorlessness of the land around her. She seems to be dazed, utterly lost, acting in inexplicable ways. She's walking with her son, but seems to keep forgetting about him and leaving him behind, letting him wander off by himself, then belatedly remembering that he's with her. As the film progresses, it becomes apparent that she's losing her mind, a not so surprising state of affairs in a place like this. Giuliana's husband, Ugo (Carlo Chionetti), is an industrialist himself, a manager at one of the local factories, so in a sense the environment that's poisoning Giuliana is in part created by her own husband, who doesn't seem to understand his wife at all. Ugo seems to think of his wife's odd behavior and increasingly obvious depression as inconveniences, minor female hysteria that would go away if only she'd stop thinking about it. He is constantly away on business, leaving her alone, and when he hears that she's been in a car accident and is in the hospital (an event that happens before the start of the movie but lingers over everything that happens subsequently), he doesn't even return from a business trip once he learns that she's going to be alright.

Initially, it seems like Ugo's friend Corrado (Richard Harris) might be able to wake Giuliana out of her misery and aimlessness. He takes an immediate interest in her, really looking at her and trying to engage with her in a way her husband doesn't. They begin to seem like a couple, as wherever they go, Corrado walks with her at her meandering, dawdling pace while her husband impatiently strides ahead, all business. Corrado is also involved in industry, but unlike Ugo he seems conflicted by his work; he's been in many different businesses, always moving from place to place, simply abandoning his life and starting anew somewhere else. In one early scene, Ugo makes calls around to several factory managers he knows, trying to find workers for Corrado's newest project. Antonioni cuts to each place Ugo calls in turn, emphasizing the similarities between them: wherever he calls, smoke spews in the background, the clatter of industrial machinery nearly drowns out the conversations, huge pipes and banks of electronic devices with blinking lights and gauges dwarf the human workers. This is industry, this is progress, making every place the same, erasing the distinctions between places to install a uniformly sleek and gray modern façade that covers up one place after another. Maybe that's why Corrado is never satisfied no matter where he moves; each new home, each new city, is modeled on the old one.

If Ugo is indifferent to the costs of modernization — even laughing at a story of a restaurant customer who complained about fish that taste like petroleum — Corrado seems to feel a small measure of the discontentment that affects Giuliana so dramatically. In a meeting with his new workers, towards the end of the film, Corrado's gaze wanders over the workers' faces but drifts away from them towards the stacked crates behind them, towards the cracked paint on the walls of the warehouse. Antonioni's images create the impression that in this environment, the faces of the men, often filmed out-of-focus, are simply another part of this inhuman landscape, and the gaze inevitably glosses over them to look at the surroundings instead. It is a glimpse of how Giuliana sees her world, as a place where humanity itself is being effaced by its own creations, by its piles of consumer goods and the massive factories dedicated to their production.

Antonioni's aesthetic constantly reflects this dehumanization and destabilization. The ugly gray surroundings of the area are reflected in Antonioni's bleak, strikingly composed images, in which the color seems to have been drained out of almost everything, leaving behind pale, washed-out hues. Often, the background is made blurry and abstract, isolating Giuliana from her surroundings, so that her crisply focused face is contrasted against the out-of-focus haze of factories and industrial parks. The omnipresent fog adds to that hazy feeling, especially in a scene by the docks when Giuliana, Ugo and their friends run through the fog, disappearing into the gray tendrils that wrap around them. Standing in the fog, the people seem to be fading in and out of view, partially obscured, their expressions unreadable due to the filtering overlay of the fog. Giuliana faces her friends and her husband and sees only the uncomprehending blankness of their faces; they seem separated from her by an uncrossable gulf.

This is a potent depiction of a world in which human connection seems impossible. At best, there are cheap and tawdry facsimiles of connection, like a party that Giuliana, Ugo and Corrado go to with some friends, where everyone talks incessantly about sex and the whole thing seems constantly on the verge of breaking out into an orgy. The orgy never happens, though, in part because all these upper-class blank slates seem too lazy, too bored, even to really have sex — their lascivious but empty chatter is contrasted against a young working class girl who says she'd "rather do certain things than talk about them." But talk is all these bored bourgeois can muster. Even Giuliana's interactions with the men who love or want her seem oddly impersonal. Her husband, who ignores all her concerns and doesn't seem to know what to make of her depressed manner, paws at her and kisses her while she sobs and moans; unable to understand her pain, he tries to smother it with sex, not getting — or not caring — that she isn't likely to be soothed in this way. Ultimately, Corrado can only resort to the same solutions; when Giuliana comes running to Corrado for help late in the film, he takes advantage of her confusion and sorrow by taking her to bed, caressing her and stripping her while she cries, alternately pushing him away and seeming to pull him closer. Her isolation and anguish is so intense that she needs some companionship, some comfort, but none of these men can offer it to her in any real and lasting way.

After Giuliana and Corrado make love, the hotel room, which had previously had white walls, is suddenly painted a pale pink, and even the coffee cups on the bedside table are pink, as though the whole room had become a womb of flesh, encompassing the lovers, as though their skin-on-skin contact had begun to spread to the objects and constructions around them. This is a film about how environments and surroundings affect human relations and psychology, but the reverse is also true: modern people create the environments in which they live. Just as it's humanity's obsession with progress that leads to industrial expansion and pollution, this scene reflects the wish that human connection, however fleeting, could counteract the suffocating and alienating effects of the world. Instead, sex and "love" only offer up more pain and disappointment. Even motherhood is unsatisfying to Giuliana, whose son is virtually a mute prop, as disconnected as his mother, and who already shows signs of his mother's unpredictable responses to this alienating environment.

There is at least one beacon of light in this desolate world: the human imagination and the capacity for hope, the capacity to dream of a better world. At one point, trying to keep her son entertained while he's ill, Giuliana tells him a story, but it's no light bedtime story. It's a haunting parable of unspoiled natural peace and the constant threat of disruption that arises from human presence. In this story, there's a beautiful beach with pink sand and clear, blue water, and the only person around is a young girl with darkly tanned skin who swims in that bright blue water and lounges on the beach all day, as long as the sun is out. The style of this sequence differs drastically from the rest of the film, as the bright colors and clean, bold images contrast against the drab tones and fog that persist outside of this dream world. As Giuliana's voiceover describes the beauty of this place, the images present an idyllic paradise, totally unspoiled, no human activity except for the girl's unhurried, isolated enjoyment of the place's beauty. The only sound is the water lapping up on the shore, a hushed whisper accompanied by Antonioni's remarkably sensual closeup of the tiny waves lapping up against the shore, kicking up swirls of pink sand that turn the crests of these wavelets a pinkish hue.

This idyll is interrupted by the appearance of a mysterious boat, unpopulated by any visible human crew, which simply turns into the inlet, seems to look around, then sails away. It is an obvious indication that this isolated place could be spoiled at any time, that the big ships of industry, so inhuman and strange, could pull in at any time, muddying up that crystal-clear water, spewing filth to cover up the delicate pink of the sand. After the ship leaves, the story goes, the whole cove sings as a kind of beautifully sad warning, or a protest, a song of heartache and fear. As Giuliana's voiceover says that the cove was like a living being, Antonioni films the curved pink rocks surrounding the water like a woman's body, admiring the glistening accretions of sand and crystal in these rocks, admiring their graceful curves that at times look like a woman's breasts or the curve of her hips. In this deeply affecting parable, this place of natural beauty becomes a woman, welcoming and pure, whose beauty is threatened by the rape of industry.

That story is a vision of the world's beauty that seems far removed from reality as Giuliana knows it — but not from reality altogether. It's the world as it could be, and the world as it still is in some places. The mere possibility of this fantastic beauty, of this total communion between humanity and nature, is enough to soften the hard edges of industrial existence. Another scene, earlier in the film, seems like a slightly surreal dream but with a much less optimistic message. Giuliana wakes up in the middle of the night and finds, in her son's room, a grinning robot running back and forth on autopilot, crashing backwards into the wall and then running up against her son's bed, grinning all the while. Giuliana turns off the robot, which remains in the lower left corner of the frame, staring at the camera with glowing eyes, as she checks on her son. When she leaves and shuts the door, restoring the room to darkness, those glowing eyes are all that remain, two yellow orbs floating in the dark, an eerie mechanical stare watching over the sleeping boy.

That image is indicative of the film's general tone of industrial malaise. The soundtrack buzzes and hums with the sounds of machinery, the high-pitched subliminal whine of power transformers, these real sounds matched in the low-key electronic score of Vittorio Gelmetti, which burbles up every so often to further deepen the sense of anxiety. Antonioni carefully calibrates every aspect of the film so that each image becomes an expression of the characters' isolation, and the weight of the world that they feel so acutely. The scenery is almost studiously bland and gray, sometimes literally, as when Giuliana sees a fruit vendor whose wares are all painted gray, as though covered in a layer of ash. In Corrado's hotel, the whole lobby is a clean, clinical white, even the plants, their white stalks emerging from white soil and white pots. Antonioni has crafted a precise and deeply affecting portrait of the destruction of the human soul in the metal jaws of industry — and the nature of the continuing psychological and physical struggle against the oppressive environs we've created for ourselves as a society.


DavidEhrenstein said...

After all these years Red Desert remains a marvelously mysterious film. It offers a landscape redolent of industrial waste and pollution that is incredibly beautiful. And to compliment it concerns a woman who has collapsed into bi-polar neurosis whose condition has also made her incredibly beautiful.

Richard Harris and Monica Vitti did not get alog during the shooting. In fact he claimed that on one occasion she bit him.

The fog sequence is brilliant. But Antonioni went himself one better with an even more elaborate fog sequence in his scandalously negelected late masterpiece Identification of a Woman.

Film Trivia Bonus Points: In Losey's Modesty Blaise the heroine's passport photo is a close-up from Red Desert

Ed Howard said...

That's a good way to put it, that it makes waste and devastation strangely beautiful and hypnotically attractive. It almost makes it seem as though collapse and ruin are inevitable because they have that strange magnetic power. Maybe that's why the would-be orgy instead degenerates into senseless destruction of the small cabin where they're staying.

Unknown said...


I skimmed this review because I just received the DVD from Netflix, so I plan on watching it soon. Those images, however, look amazing; I suppose that's not too surprising, though. Anyway, I look forward to coming back to this review after I've watched the film.

Odd confession time: this will be only the second Antonioni film I've seen. Please don't revoke my cinephile card! Hehe.

Ed Howard said...

Kevin, I look forward to your thoughts once you do see the film. It's a great one. As is Antonioni's earlier alienation trilogy, which is of course essential viewing as well (with L'eclisse being perhaps my favorite of his films).