If the name “Antonioni” gives the neophyte cinephile pause, he can take solace in the fact that confusion loves company almost as much as misery does. Andrew Sarris begins his introduction of Jean-Luc Godard’s interview with cinema’s Michelangelo by reminding readers that L’Avventura (1960) was hissed at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival. When I first started using Netfix to plow through the Criterion collection–in alphabetical order, no less–Antonioni’s mesmerizing story of a vanishing was one of the titles I actually did kind of sort of maybe half understand. Confidence bolstered by positive experiences with La Notte (1961) and L’Eclisse (1962) and a theatrical viewing of the rereleased The Passenger (1975), I approached Il Deserto rosso with…well, not confidence, exactly, but not exactly trepidation either.
Seventy-two hours, two viewings, and one interview reprinted from Cahiers later, Antonioni seems more opaque, more distant, more…okay, I’ll say it…
Monica Vitti plays Giuliana, the wife of a plant manager in Ravenna. We are told she was involved in a car accident and hasn’t been right since, but we sense that she may not have been all that right to begin with. She wanders through an industrial wasteland as ugly as the natural world at the end of L’Eclisse was beautiful. Her husband, Ugo (Carlo Chionetti) is largely indifferent to her distress. In an aside to Carrado Zeller (Richard Harris), he admits he did not go to the hospital after her accident because the doctors assured him it wasn’t necessary. She wants to open a store to sell…something, she doesn’t know what, and the attention of Zeller, an engineer who is on his way to Patagonia neither pleases nor discomfits her.
Not surprisingly, the most useful quote from the interview came early in the piece and was one in which Antonioni offers a general description of his central concern:
Before [in my previous films] it was the relationship of one character to another that interested me. Here the central character is confronted with a social milieu as well […] It simplifies things too much (as many have done) to say that I accuse this inhuman, industrialized world in which the individual is crushed and led to neurosis [….] As for me, I hold that the sort of neurosis seen in Red Desert is above all a question of adaption. There are people who adapt themselves, and others who haven’t yet done this, for they are too tied to the structures, or life-rhythms, that are out of date. (23)
Armed with this insight, it was easy enough to see the predominance of environmental factors over personal ones in the film, but I’m still uncertain how Antonioni’s claim that the industrial landscape can have an aesthetic beauty missing in a monotonous row of trees with the film’s brightened palette during the scene that depicts the story Giuliana is narrating to her son.
Godard goes almost directly to this scene in interviewing Antonioni, and his answer to its meaning is typically opaque. He calls the story Giuliana’s evasion of reality. The story she has created is the creation of the world she longs for. It appears from his answer that this is about more than just the vibrancy of color. It is important that in Giuliana’s story the rocks take on an almost fleshy appearance and the singing comes from everywhere around her. Antonioni connects this scene to one later in which Giuliana tells Corrado that she wishes she could have everyone who ever loved her present at once to build a wall around her. A key element in the story, then, seems to be the girl’s harmony with her surroundings, a point Antonioni underscores with his repeated claims that The Red Desert is about a failure to adapt.
Dreamscapes and stories within stories are significant in both psychoanalytic criticism and reader-response criticism. In the former, they give us some insight into the repressed desires of the protagonists (or artists), while in the latter they instruct us how to read by modeling reading within the narrative framework. As Guiliana’s story reaches its climax, her son interrupts to ask ask “Who was singing?” She replies first, “Everyone” and then, “Everything.” Perhaps, like the imaginary wall of loved ones, her response evidences a deep need for immersion rather than merely connection. At one point she says, “I can’t look at the sea for long and not lose interest in what happened on land.” Perhaps in the face of such large environmental drains on color and soul, the love of a person is not enough–she needs to be connected to something that is not only bigger than herself but bigger than the things that are engulfing her. The inadequacy of human relationships might be a link between Antonioni’s films. Certainly we understand in L’Avventura that finding the missing person wouldn’t necessarily lead to a happy ending, and that although the desperate need for connection makes it impossible to sustain a relationship with one who is absent, the relationships we forge with those who are (that which is) present do not assuage the longing we have for that which is missing.
Transience is another motif in the film. Corrado is in transit, and he and Giuliana talk in an abstract way about the importance of taking things with them versus leaving them behind. This talk seems idle, though. Things are very real in this world, and people are tied to them. “What interests me now is to place the character in contact with things, for it is things, objects and materials that have weight today” (28).
Towards the end of the interview, Antonioni and Godard are discussing color and whether Guiliana sees the world as it is shown on the screen. Antonioni comments:
You know, there are neurotics who see color differently. Doctors have done experiments on this subject, with mescaline for example, in order to try to know what they see. At a certain point, I had the intention of having some effects of this nature. But now there is no longer anything of this but one single moment, when you see stains on a wall. I also thought of modifying the color of certain objects, and then the fact of using all those “tricks” very quickly seemed to me to become artificial; it was an artificial way of saying things which could be said in a much simpler way. Well, I eliminated these effects. But we may think she sees color differently. (31)
I’m fascinated with the way “artificial” is contrasted with “simpler” in this quote. Conventional wisdom suggests that the artificial effect, especially now in the days of CGI is the simplest, laziest way to communicate exactly what you want.
I couldn’t help but think of Spielberg and Schindler’s List at this comment, though his use of color was hardly to denote the same thing. It does seem true, though, in retrospect that the more artificial the effect to communicate the idea, the less power and resonance it has. This quote, combined with one in which Antonioni talks about reducing dialogue in the film, suggested to me that I needed to reside nearer the surface when taking in and reflecting Antonioni’s films. We may not spot shadow or artificially underline certain ideas, but neither does he coyly obfuscate in order to forestall discovery. The latter is more a practice we are used to in films that only have one or two ideas and so must go to great lengths to delay our recognition of them long enough for us to think they are profound. Antonioni is more meditative, and like most meditations, The Red Desert conveys some meaning easily enough. But in that difference between “some” and “all” (or even most) lies the difference between a girl in red wandering through a black and white film and a momentary stain on a wall that we might not even see at a first or second viewing.
Sarris, Andrew, ed. “Michelangelo Antonioni.” Interviews With Film Directors. New York: Avon, 1967. 21-32.