Red Desert (Italy, 1965) * * * *
D: Michelangelo Antonioni
If there is fault to be found in Antonioni's 1965 Red Desert, it is not within the borders of the film's frames: Antonioni is, at this stage of his career, such an impeccable artist that there is not a single moment of the film which could not provoke a healthy paper from a thoughtful film student. Red Desert is a magnificent meditation on human alienation, thoroughly schematized, yet open to enigmatic possibilities as Antonioni lets his camera wander across these bizarre industrial landscapes (visually, it is almost a science fiction film). The only fair criticism might be that Antonioni had already done this many times before, and that the reason he's so good at it by 1965 is that he's just very well practiced on the subject matter. And yet, you wouldn't criticize Hitchcock for making a "wrong man" film--you'd pop one in the DVD player when you're in the mood to watch the best of wrong man films. If you're hankering for a slowly-paced, gorgeously-shot, meditative film about upper-class existential angst, may I recommend L'Eclisse, La Notte, L'Avventura, or Il Deserto Rosso, all representing the cream of the crop, and all by Antonioni?
Monica Vitti again stars, here cast as the wife to the manager of a factory, whose plant is suffering under the impact of a worker's strike. She has just been involved in a terrible car accident, and although she's physically recovered, she is, as her husband complains, not quite right. In fact, she's crippled by neuroses, almost schizophrenic, as she literally cringes and recoils at the oppressive, rusting, decayed, and polluted world around her, which Antonioni frames so that it visually presses in on her from all sides. In his films, empty space carries as much weight as heavy concrete. She ponders opening a ceramics shop, and explains to an only slightly less disaffected engineer (Richard Harris) that she must choose just the right color for the shop--something "neutral," she says, as she shows him the paint samples she's splashed on the wall. Of course, her world is filled with neutral colors--browns and grays, primarily--and so whenever Antonioni introduces a splash of bright red, or a delirious purple, a flag should be raised in the viewer's mind. But the reddest room, low-ceilinged, hidden in the back of a shack sitting on a foggy pier, is gaudy and almost shameful, and it's where Vitti, her husband, and their friends gather for a debauched party that sits temptingly on the verge of an all-out orgy. This kind of debauchery has been chronicled in Italian 60's cinema before, most notably in Fellini's La Dolce Vita, but the way Antonioni treats it is telling. The couples find the encounter rife with sexy possibilities, but Antonioni doesn't: he's noticing how gaudily the paint is splashed on these rotting old planks, how Vitti and Harris have a slightly distant, haunted look about them, how the biggest lech in the room is almost reptilian in his movements, and that the cold, bottomless ocean is only just below them; most of all he points out how truly awkward and desperate they seem. When another couple arrives to peer down into the room, the partygoers--either middle-aged or approaching middle-age, and lying on their sides and backs like children in a cramped playroom--seem briefly self-aware, before they try to lure that visiting couple into their lustful self-delusion.
It's delusion in which Antonioni is most interested: his central characters, often played by Vitti, seem to have broken that spell, suddenly facing a universe which is cruel and meaningless, and which no one else can see. That--and the fact that we're all in it alone. The most powerful, almost supernatural image in the film is a vision Vitti has while standing in the foggy harbor with her friends, all of them having just fled the proximity of an arriving ship that's being quarantined: Vitti sees each of her companions slowly absorbed by the mist, one at a time, while they stand, frozen, staring at her. It's one of many iconic images in Antonioni's filmography, but perhaps the closest he comes to actually visualizing that nothingness which is assaulting his characters. But the cruelty can also come from other people. She tries to explain it to Harris: "If you pinch me, only I suffer..." Even her son can be cruel, though indirectly, when he leads his mother to believing, for a day, that he's become paralyzed by polio. When she discovers him standing, perfectly healthy, on top of his bed, she's relieved, overwhelmed with gratitude; and then struck by horror--not just that a trick was played on her, but that her own child could so carelessly thrust her into such an awful alternate reality. It's just another one of her epiphanies, as the film chronicles Vitti's deterioration on the path to a grim "enlightenment."
Antonioni would subsequently challenge himself by taking his approach to different cultures: first to swinging London with Blow-Up, then to American campus radicalism with Zabriskie Point. Red Desert feels like the last film in a series, mastering his themes, or, perhaps, just finally expressing something he'd been trying to get at for the past several films. You might prefer any of those other films (me, I'll take La Notte), but one thing that strikes me about Red Desert is the feeling that the director has finally scratched that itch. He's gotten out what he's been wanting to say, and now he can move on--if only a little bit.