Screening Log #25: Il deserto rosso (The Red Desert) (1964)

Written by Michelangelo Antonioni and Tonino Guerra
Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni
Starring Monica Vitti, Richard Harris, and Carlo Chionetti




Early in Red Desert Monica Vitti’s Giuliana tells Richard Harris’ Corrado that she does not want the colour of the walls in her store to clash with the merchandise that she will sell, despite not knowing at the time what exactly this merchandise will be; Michelangelo Antonioni exhibits a similar concern for the appropriateness of colour to Giuliana’s in this, his first colour film. Always sensitive to the manner that architecture is able to function as an extension of its creators, Antonioni employs colour as an essentially important element. Antonioni’s previous works concerning the effect of modern society on the ability of the individuals to connect in meaningful ways – films such as L’avventura and L’eclisse – deployed the lines and shadows of architecture, or its absence, to emphasize the spaces, largely negative, between individuals; in Red Desert, Antonioni juxtaposes colour palettes, contrasting the muted grey metallic colours of the industrial world with reds and greens of the natural world to emphasize the disconnect experienced by Giuliana.

Giuliana is first seen with her son against the cold grey backdrop of an industrial plant owned by her husband, Carlo Chionetti’s Ugo, wrapped in a long green coat. Immediately, Antonioni paints Giuliana as a natural force moving through a fabricated world of concrete and mud, oil and steam, her warm green maternalism juxtaposed with the blank sky and mud. Her relationship with Ugo is one obviously built on care but strained by distance. Giuliana has recently had an accident that was, in fact, not quite so accidental and feels disconnected from the world. She finds a connection in a friend and business partner of Ugo’s, Richard Harris’ Corrado Zeller, who moves through the world unable to stay in any one place, traveling place to place, a guise of business concerns masking his own distinct feelings of disconnection from the world and its people. Antonioni builds the triangle between the three people patiently, taking care to show that Giuliana has a foundation of love with Ugo and their son, but that there is a felt distance between them, and that Zeller sees her in a manner that Ugo does not.

Antonioni uses colour to deftly indicate the interior feelings of his characters, often employing red to denote anxiety and arousal – two closely related states of being – and, in other places, blues and even the absence of colour in all white tableaus. These colours stand out against Antonioni’s largely grey and neutral palette of backgrounds and his character’s wardrobes, the world and its people’s colour flattened out to reflect Giuliana’s own disconnection from it. In addition to his employment of colour, Antonioni makes use of visual metaphors rooted in setting to heighten distance and inform his characters; a fog sets in on a group after Ugo politely refuses to acknowledge Giuliana’s desire to make love, a ship potentially carries disease.

Ugo departs and Giuliana finds herself with Zeller after telling her son a story set on a gorgeous Italian beach about a natural world that the story’s protagonist feels connected to, in which everything sings. This encounter changes little for Giuliana, and the film begins in the same place it began, Giuliana dressed the same, informing her son that the birds have learned to avoid the poisonous yellow smoke billowing from the plant. Antonioni offers a slim consolation that acceptance may hold a key, that embracing the sleek and colourless charm of the modern world, and its various separatenesses, may hold a beauty all their own.


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