John Donne is noted for writing that no man is an island, but if this film is any indication, there might be a need to qualify that statement to suggest that some women are islands — at least when portrayed by the elegiac Monica Vitti. Red Desert begins with blurred images and a high-pitched piercing melody playing over the credits. From its opening moments, two things are evident. It gives off the general sense of industry and it features one of the most extraordinary uses of color ever with the blues and grays contrasting sharply with the brighter pigments.
In fact, it’s oftentimes easy to think of Michelangelo Antonioni as a filmmaker well-versed in the poetic imagery of black and white but you have only to see Monica Vitti in her green coat standing with her son like two solitary beacons, to know that he is equally fit for color. He is a master equally skilled with a new palette.
You could make the assumption that the world has become a sort of wasteland. More comic depictions of these themes are obvious in the works of Chaplin and Tati. In my own mind, a bit of Modern Times and Playtime began to float to the fore. There were bits and pieces of those films that felt like they could be analogous to what Antonioni is trying to accomplish here with his images of the industrial Ravenna. There are smokestacks, bells, whistles, factories, machines and so on.
It’s easy to quickly surmise that this is all a condemnation of the world slowly going to hell because there’s no doubt that many of the opening visuals are bland and austere. But underlying Red Desert is a stark beauty that permeates the entire landscape. Thus, Antonioni’s perspective is perhaps a lot more nuance that the viewer will even acknowledge at first.
In an interview, he once said the following, “It’s too simplistic to say—as many people have done—that I am condemning the inhuman industrial world which oppresses the individuals and leads them to neurosis. The line and curves of factories and their chimneys can be more beautiful than the outline of trees, which we are already too accustomed to seeing. It is a rich world, alive and serviceable.”
However, even if this word does reflect its share of beauty, it is Monica Vitti’s character who still embodies paranoia and disorientation with the modern civilization. In other words, she is the one out of step with the contemporary world that she finds herself in, due in part to an auto accident and a subsequent stint in a hospital. She is struggling to readjust to reality.
And it’s no wonder that Antonioni made a string of four films with her because she has a remarkable gift for personifying all that is distant and aloof in a human being, while still bearing immense powers of attraction. In this case, it’s the visiting recruiter (Richard Harris) who is taken with her. But not even a fling with him can remedy what she is struggling through. There’s no one who can fully understand her, not even the audience.
As per usual with Antonioni, his film invariably feels to be altogether more preoccupied with form over content and that’s what is most interesting. It’s fascinating some of the environments he develops. Atmospheres full of billowing fog, wispy trees, stark alleyways, gridiron structures, and all the while the color red pops in every sequence. There’s no score in the typical sense, instead, the dialogue is backed by foghorns, machinery, and an occasional electronic sound effect.
We get a little better understanding of her psyche when she recounts a mesmerizing story to her young son about a young girl who spends her afternoons swimming in the glassy water off the coast of an immaculate island. The pantheistic fantasy she so vividly paints for him is strikingly juxtaposed with the world around her — a world she has yet to feel fully comfortable in. However, both worlds somehow seem empty.