Red Desert (1964), Michelangelo Antonioni’s first film in colour, forms a loose quartet with L’Avventura (1960), La Notte (1961) and L’Eclisse (1962). I have seen the first and third of those – though I do own a copy of the eureka! edition of La Notte. In fact, it was L’Avventura which introduced me to Antonioni’s films, and persuaded me to seek out more by him.
Like the earlier three films, Red Desert stars Monica Vitti. She plays Giuliana, the wife of a director of an industrial plant in Ravenna, Italy. She has just come out of hospital following a car accident which, it is later suggested, was actually an attempt at suicide. Certainly, Giuliana is… fragile. A friend of the husband – Zeller, played by Richard Harris, with his dialogue dubbed into Italian – arrives in Ravenna, looking for engineers for a project in South America. He finds himself drawn to Giuliana, and something in her responds to him more honestly than with her husband.
Film is a visual medium, and yet it often seems that few directors take true advantage of that fact. They use visuals as a short-hand for world-building, or by using special effects to overload the spectacle. Red Desert, however, is an extremely painterly film. Though it is set in an industrial area, it boasts rich colours – which are themselves commentary on the world of the story: in the final scene, Giuliana’s young son asks his mother why a nearby factory’s smoke is yellow. And so it is: a vivid yellow against a grey sky. “Because it’s poisonous,” Giuliana replies. In another scene, Giuliana, her husband, Zeller, and some of their friends spend an afternoon in a decrepit hut on a quay. The “bedroom” of the hut is a tiny space filled with a mattress and with walls painted a bright red. The horseplay inside the bedroom turns distinctly sexual before being defused by the appearance of a ship at the quay. It is so close that it looms over the hut, entirely blocking the view from the window. Later, when they leave the hut, a fog has drawn in, turning the entire world white and shapeless.
Other scenes notable for their use of shape and colour include Zeller’s visit to Giuliana’s “shop”, an empty building in a monotone street, in which Giuliana plans to start a business. She has yet to decide what her shop will sell, however. Outside, the two stop to talk beside a barrow of fruit – and all of the produce has been painted varying shades of gray. Later, Giuliana and Zeller visit an offshore wellhead platform – for reasons not entirely clear, though it’s something to do with Zeller’s project in South America – and the two act out their lines against the bright colours of the equipment on the platform.
In some respects, Red Desert resembles “poetical cinema” – it is not a film with a three-act structure, or any form of narrative closure. However, it does have readily-identifiable characters, and they interact in a way that apes the real world. Red Desert is, I think, a better film than L’Avventura and L’Eclisse – it is certainly a more beautiful film than those two. Recommended.