Introduction to Red Desert
“Our inability to adapt to the new industrial rhythms of life had resulted in a dangerous imbalance in our psychological and spiritual nature”
– michelangelo Antonioni
Red Desert is a 1964 Italian film directed by Michelangelo Antonioni and co-written by Tonino Guerra. The film’s main character, Giuliana, is played by Monica Vitti alongside co-actor Richard Harris as Corrado, a strong supporting role for Giuliana. The film won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and is considered as Antonioni’s most ambitious attempt to ground the condition of the human’s modern existence in theory of alienation.
On surface level, the film is about the technological alienation of identities, however if you were to go one level deeper, it also describes the search of a separate identity that distinguishes an entity to others, one that allows ethical bonds with others to be maintained.
The film depicts a woman, Giuliana, who seems to suffer from a kind of neurosis, a fear of cultural adaptation, an everlasting-anxiety towards nature,both physically and spiritually. She tries to survive in this world while trying to comprehend the things around her and struggling with existential doubt. She is frequently seen drifting her gaze into space, or as though engulfed in her own world, amused by things that others do not take notice of.
She is married to a man named Ugo(Carlo Chionetti), and has a young son named Valerio. Ugo is depicted in the movie as a man who does not seem to be able to understand what Giuliana is experiencing often seen disconnected from her.
She then meets Ugo’s friend, Corrado Zeller, who seems to be able to comprehend what is going through Giuliana’s head as he is also alienated like Giuliana, but more able to hold his own. He is seen most obviously to be in a world of his own, separated from reality, in a scene whereby he was addressing a team of workers and his attention slowly drifts off.
The story slowly progresses in their ups and downs as Giuliana confides more of her secrets and her thoughts to Corrado. However her anxieties and loneliness perseveres when her son feigns his own illness and she is thrown back into a state of isolation. She then comes to realize that in this world everyone is disconnected from others, and acknowledges her own alienation.
Color plays a big part in Red Desert as it is Antonioni’s first film to use the full chromatic palette and was considered by his contemporaries to be an aesthetic breakthrough. Colors used in the film all conveyed a subliminal message, a feeling, an undertone.
For example, Giuliana is often seen wearing the color green when she is around industrial places, what some may consider a comparison between surrealism and the reality. Green which signifies peacefulness and tranquility, represents the kind of harmony that Giuliana may want to connect with amidst all the chaos in the technological advances and adaptations.
Throughout the film, vibrant colors are downplayed in the background and in the industrial wastelands. In a scene whereby Giuliana is with a group of friends in a shack, Red color along with dirty white paint came into use. The colors represented some kind of anxiety stowed away in the back of a mind, associated with Giuliana’s thoughts which were at rest in the shack with her friends.
During a scene whereby Giuliana was telling a story to her son, a story that depicted that of a paradise, an Oasis. The colors used in the scene, blue,green and some areas of yellow were vibrant, rich and bright. To signify the resemblance to heaven, a place that was opposite of the hell that she was in.
Antonioni had once said: “I want to paint the film as one paints the canvas; I want to invent the colour relationships, and not limit myself to photographing only natural colours.” (Michelangelo Antonioni: The Investigation p91-95) Antonioni didn’t want to film nature as it was but wanted to paint things a certain colour, to match how a character views it. Antonioni later goes on to continue using colour in his later films and becomes noted for the way he uses colours in his films.
From Red Desert onwards, his cinematic style included that of the exploitation use of colour as an expressive element that his colour films, especially significant in Red Desert, it being his first colour film.
Angles,Environment and Symbols
There were many scenes that were shot at angles that profoundly expressed the kind of feeling that the characters were going through. Environment and background also contributed to the overall atmosphere and kind of mental state that the characters were experiencing.
Firstly, during the introduction and when the credits were rolling, the background was blurred and switched from frame to frame, as though it was straight away trying to convey a sense of disorientation,confusion and unclear feelings to the viewers. It also associates with the role of Giuliana, a woman who is constantly trying to establish a foothold on this unstable ground, trying to organise her thoughts and emotions.
Next, in many of the scenes which showed Giuliana in the industrial wastelands, they were all shot in wide angles that could effectively portray the vastness and emptiness of the devastated lands. So wide you could feel the isolation in which the main character is trapped in.
Another good example of well used shots that conveyed the emotions of the character is the scene whereby Giuliana is seen stumbling along a long hallway which was a direct wide frontal shot which showed the length and depth of the hallway, which gave off a lonely and desperate atmosphere accompanied with Monica Vitti’s superb act of being depressed and in a state of isolation after realizing that her son had faked his illness.
In the scene whereby Giuliana is holed up in a shack with her friends. Fog was effectively used to show the isolation that she lives in. In the scene, there was a shot of a couple exiting the shack and walking down the street that was absent of fog, prior to the arrival of the mysterious ship. However when the ship arrived and Giuliana escaped the scene, fog started to shroud the place, and eventually it surrounds her such that only the blurred figures of her friends’ could be seen, adding to the kind of confusion and unclear mental state she lives in.
Sound also played a big part in the film. From the very beginning of the film, strange, inhumane noises that came from unknown sources could be heard all around Giuliana, which at certain points were so overwhelming that it signified the kind of chaotic and insecure environment she was in and expressed once again her anxiety and her sense of isolation. These sounds can be heard whenever she is in a scene of an industrial wasteland. During the scenes whereby she was going through one of her anxiety and madness moments, an ear piercing ringing sound can be heard, which slowly softens and then comes back again, as though showing the relentless turmoil that she was going through during these episodes of madness.
Richard Roud, a film critic at The Guardian during 1965 had acclaimed it as “probably Antonioni’s best film” and “the most important film of its year”. (BFI, Samuel Wigley)
All in all, the film was a huge combination of superbly well-placed shots, mild and subtle colors that conveyed a meaningful message together with sounds that so perfectly encased the whole mental struggle that the character was going through. It is also a successful attempt of Antonioni’s to show the subject of alienation and individuation on the big screen.
Jason is a student of Singapore Polytechnic who aspires to find ways of using visual representations to convey subtle yet thought-provoking messages.
Mark Le Fanu, 2010. Red Desert:In this World. The Criterion Collection [online] Available at:http://www.criterion.com/current/posts/1491-red-desert-in-this-world
Red Desert(1964). Rotten Tomatoes[online] Available at: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/red_desert_1964/
Christine Henderson, 2011. Film-Philosophy. The Trials of Individuation in Late Modernity: Exploring Subject Formation in Antonioni’s Red Desert. [online] Available at: www.film–philosophy.com/index.php/f-p/article/download/113/787
British Film Institute. 2012. Then and now: Red Desert reviewed. [online] Available at: http://www.bfi.org.uk/news/then-now-red-desert-reviewed [Accessed: 6 Jul 2013].
Chatman, S. and Duncan, P. 2004. Michelangelo Antonioni. Köln: Taschen.