Sunday, June 10, 2012

Red Desert (Il Deserto Roso) (1964)

Fans of classic Italian avant garde cinema are in for a treat. On July 27th Red Desert (Il Deserto Roso) by Michelangelo Antonioni is being re-released. All buffed up with radiant colours fully restored, this may well be Antonioni's masterpiece. First released in 1964, Red Desert is the final part of his quartet of films with lover Monica Vitti and also, more significantly, his first in colour. In interviews, while slightly playing down the significance of its use, by saying: 'I used colour for the first time. I don't think that's particularly significant since colour is such a part of modern society', he still makes it plain that the film is above all about the emotional resonance of colour, expressed by a 'deep-seated need to deal with [colour] in large blotches, as if they were pulsations that penetrate chaotically inside the characters'.

To this end Antonioni drops his hapless actors into an alien landscape: half-industrial complex with attendant wasteland, half-deserted port town in Northern Italy, wreathed in mist and fumes. The chemical plants' chimneys loom greyly, shot through with primary colour piping or spewing orange smoke and fire. Michelangelo deliberately accentuates the colours of both machinery and nature, sometimes by actually painting them a brighter hue (I'm pretty sure he did this in Blow-Up too). But while Red Desert works on one level as purest eye candy, on another it's a fascinating immersion into one woman's neuroses made visible. Antonioni explains the process as trying:'…to exploit each and every narrative resource of colour in a way that it contributed to the mood of each sequence.' It certainly does all that.

There's an argument for saying that Red Desert is basically a science fiction movie. Its tone and technological landscape are vaguely futuristic, even visiting a new radio telescope at one point (see above), and its main protagonists inhabit ultra-chic modernist spaces. Even the child has a robot in his room, while in the big bad world outside, in contrast to the throbbing might of progress, human beings are malfunctioning left right and centre. Some merely leaking like leaky faucets; some with whole bits missing or about to fall off spectacularly. The message is: adapt and survive to rapid change or go increasingly insane. Antonioni remains ambivalent throughout the film, as to which outcome is superior.

Vitti plays Guiliana, a woman whose husband, Ugo, does some management level job in a local chemical plant. He seems a little preoccupied; possibly with work-related problems. Whatever it is, he seems unable to deal or even acknowledge the fact that his wife's obviously mid-breakdown. He leaves her alone to mooch crazily around the milling crowds of striking workers with her small son. A question about what to have for tea would lead to a 10 minute exposition on fear and loneliness in this household. Ugo appears to be the adapting, futuristic type, judging from his slightly android-y approach to what is obviously a previous suicide attempt, masked as a car accident. Ugo's friend and colleague, Corrado (played by Richard Harris skilfully dubbed into italian) is in town. He's a man who's on the verge of a breakdown, so identifies slightly more with Vitti: he drifts off in the middle of recruitment meetings, expounds on his lack of enthusiasm for anything and wonders what point of it all is etc. He might be moving to Patagonia. But not before he becomes Giuliana's lover, only to drift off while Giuliana returns to the wasteland. The film contains two particularly remarkable sequences. In one a suburban drinks party with friends, and complete with innuendo and flirting starts in a cramped, bright scarlet cabin on the dockside, but ends with a potential plague ship and the party almost literally dissolving into the mist before our eyes.

In the other, as Giuliana tells a simple story of a girl on a beach to her sick son, Valerio, we see it through her eyes. In this sequence Antonioni used colour: '… 'normally'- that is, leaving colours their natural hues… In that sequence the plot is suspended, as if the eye and the conscience of the narrator had been distracted elsewhere. [It] tells a fragment of human experience, shows reality as Giuliana wishes it were - that is, different from the world that appears to her as transformed, alienated, obsessive to the point of being monstrously deformed.' At various points we see this alienation also from Giuliana's viewpoint: her sharpness contrasted against a flat wash of floating, unfocused colour and movement. It's amazing how modern this all still looks.

This world is not only deformed but a health and safety nightmare, from Giuliana nearly driving a car off the end of the pier, to Valerio gambolling amongst pools of toxic waste spiked with rusty pipes gouging actual real steam. And there's one startling scene where Ugo and Corrado stand manfully gazing at a huge building-sized machine with a maw that spouts not only huge clouds of steam but what look suspiciously like massive, jagged lumps of timber at high speed. All that would be CGI'd these days.

Red Desert is a simply brilliant film, both as a visual feast and as a study of people who simply find the modern world too harsh to bear. Vitti is mesmerisingly out to lunch, Harris is the very essence of doe-eyed existentialism but in the end the best performance is given by the camera of Carlo Di Palma; delivering poetry no matter how desolate the subject. Go see it!

(Interview by Francois Maurin. Originally published in Humanite dimanche 23 Sept 1964. Trans. Andrew taylor for publication in The Architecture of Vision (Marsilio, 1996))

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