Michelangelo Antonioni's films are the very definition of arthouse cinema. They have unorthodox narratives, often contain heady themes, and the later ones were usually built around landscapes and environments rather than performances. They require the viewer to let go of preconceived notions of film to even approach them. He caused a sensation with "L'Avventura" by presenting a mystery that is never resolved, in a film full of long shots where nothing apparently happens. All Antonioni films were about social alienation in one form or another. However, as time went on his characters spoke less and the camera more. He became less concerned with traditional narratives, and instead on mood, atmosphere, and tone. I admit I haven't always had the patience or the concentration to appreciate his work. However, when I did connect to one of his films, the experience was entrancing.
"Red Desert" was the one I found the most affecting. A woman named Giuliana (Monica Vitti) has recently been through a traumatic car accident, and is suffering from loneliness and alienation. She has a young son, and her husband Ugo manages a petrochemical plant near Ravenna, Italy. The area has become heavily industrialized and polluted, perhaps mirroring Giuliana's new state of mind and attitude toward the world. Everywhere she goes seems to be contaminated. She gradually becomes involved with Corrado (Richard Harris), a visiting business associate of Ugo's, and reveals her troubles to him. He's sympathetic, having many of the same feeling toward the state of the world, but has learned to cope. Giuliana tries to reconcile herself with her surroundings, but the people she encounters in social situations, her family, and ever her dreams continue to cause her anxiety.
There is no literal desert in the film, but rather a metaphorical one created in Giuliana's mind. Antonioni presents the world as the character views it, a looming expanse, full of soft colors, devoid of life, and terribly empty. The only major landmarks are the hallmarks of industrialization: the smoke-spewing factories, construction cranes, and pieces of large machinery. Giuliana is left adrift in the landscape, constantly wandering from place to place, constantly compelled to separate herself from others. This was the director's first color film, and he was determined not to be limited by reality, opting instead for more stylized, impressionistic visuals. He went so far as to have trees and grass painted grey to fit his specific palette of muted tones. The color red appears repeatedly, but mostly in the interiors, when Giuliana manages to connect with other people briefly. It's one of the few bright colors in Giuliana's world of grays and pastels, where everything seems to be on the verge of disappearing into the fog of polluted air.
Monica Vitti gained a reputation for detached, cool characters after appearing in three of Antonioni's previous films playing similar characters. Giuliana stands out, however, because her alienation is the most extreme, and Vitti is excellent at getting across her growing neurosis. All the other actors seem to have been cast to be slightly off balance with her. Richard Harris, a British actor known for emotional, turbulent performances, is very cool here, clearly an outsider with all his dialogue dubbed in Italian. Carlo Chionetti, a Milanese lawyer who appeared in no other acting roles, was cast as Ugo. As in all of Antonioni's films, social outings only serve to drive the characters further apart and highlight their isolation. The small talk full of innuendoes becomes part of the din of industrialization. And while we're on the subject of the sound design, "Red Desert" has a very memorable one. Like the visuals, the soundtrack is impressionistic. It uses a combination of machine noises and an electronic music score to make the atmosphere even more uneasy and unsettling.
Antonioni's films have been compared to poetry in the way the it conveys themes and ideas. You could watch "Red Desert" and conclude that Giuliana's mental ailment to be due to a fear of men, or sexual dysfunction, or a rejection of Italian social mores, or plenty more. The film invites interpretation, suggesting that the scenes where nothing happens may actually be the most telling. Antonioni actually strikes me as fairly accessible because his intentions are quite clear in much of his work, and the visuals are always so striking. Even if you find "Red Desert" completely obtuse, it's still a lovely, haunting landscape to observe.
What I've seen - Michaelangelo Antonioni
La Notte (1961)
Red Desert (1964)
Zabriskie Point (1970)
The Passenger (1975)