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Red Desert


Feature review, printed in Little White Lies magazine, September 2008.

Winner of the Golden Lion at the 1964 Venice Film Festival, Red Desert was Antonioni’s first foray into colour, and it’s never looked more beautiful than in this new high-definition restoration from the BFI.

Taking post-industrial Italy as its backdrop, Red Desert tells the story of Giuliana (Monica Vitti) a factory owner’s wife who has been mentally and emotionally damaged by a car accident. The first time we see her, Giuliana’s pea-green coat makes her stand out against the slate grey tones of the factory. This indelible image is symbolic of her relationship to her environment: she’s detached, ill adapted, unable, as her husband Ugo (Carlo Chionetti) describes her, “to… mesh”. He, on the other hand, appears perfectly suited to this new world of cold, scientific industry. Although not against industrialisation per se, Antonioni was concerned with its social effects, with the people it would inexorably leave behind, and later pronounced Ugo “a robot”.

The plot is driven by Giuliana’s meeting Corrado, her husband’s business associate, played by a brooding young Richard Harris. Antonioni’s elliptical style plays out their affair in somewhat confusing fragments, only partly explained by the fact that we share Giuliana’s point of view. In her fragile, angst-ridden state, colours emit menacing, electronic frequencies. In several shots, Antonioni had his crew spray paint the landscape grey to achieve the damp, dismal appearance of the film. Sporadic flashes of bright colour, such as the factory’s painted rails and handles, pierce this greyness to startling effect. Although the director himself found the industrialised world strangely beautiful, through Giuliana’s eyes and ears it’s portrayed as something frightening and alien. The only respite from this comes from a self-contained episode within the film, in which Giuliana is telling her son a story. Depicting a young girl on an idyllic beach, this is the only sequence that doesn’t use filters, spray, or electronic music.

All too soon we’re plunged back into Giuliana’s unstable reality. As she teeters on the brink of sanity, clinging to walls and the security of affection, you can’t help but share the sense of vertigo, and it all gets a bit trying. Vitti gives an impressive performance but, as one reviewer has remarked, “in how many ways, and for how long, can one impart angst?” The pacing is undeniably torturous at times, and the disappointingly sex-free ‘orgy’ scene may leave modern viewers a tad frustrated. On the other hand, Vitti never loses her luminous screen presence, and Harris cuts a fine figure as her rescuer (in certain lights there’s even a look of Daniel Craig about him…)

Screen totty aside, Red Desert is worthy of its reputation as a high point in modern cinema. A radical experiment in colour and sound, many commentators have claimed it’s a film about colour. But there’s more to it than that. Antonioni wasn’t overtly concerned with the environmental fallout of industrialisation, but his depiction of the damage it inflicts on an individual will stay with you long after the colours have faded.

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