Red Desert: Criterion Collection
June 10, 2010
The term auteur was invented to describe a filmmaker like Michelangelo Antonioni who pretty much defined existential angst with the films he made in the 1960s, most notably the ones starring his then cinematic muse, Monica Vitti. With Red Desert (1964), he would explore how the advances in technology and industry had an alienating effect on the individual. The film would also mark his first foray into colour. The film won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival and signaled a new direction for Antonioni who would go on to make a name for himself internationally with his next film, Blow-Up (1966).
Red Desert defies any easy kind of synopsis and one really has to let the film wash over them. The first shots in the film are of factories just out of focus and accompanied by a dissonant soundtrack mixed with industrial noises that immediately establish an alienated atmosphere. This is followed by the high pitched sounds of a woman singing. After the opening credits, there is an incredible establishing shot of two massive smoke stacks. Giuliana (Vitti) and her young son arrive at her husband’s factory and encounter some of its workers on strike. The factory grounds are grey and colourless dirt mixed with rubble. Her green coat stands out when contrasted with these drab surroundings.
Early on, industrial imagery is everywhere: in the background of a man in an office talking on the phone, and on the factory floor dwarfing a worker also talking on the phone. The noises of various machines are deafening and omnipresent. Giuliana’s husband Ugo (Chionetti) introduces her to a friend of his, Corrado Zeller (Harris). Huge plumes of smoke billow out of the factory as Ugo and Zeller look on and industrial sounds drown out their conversation. Giuliana and Ugo live in a Spartan-like house with modern-type furniture that anticipates a similar house and decor in David Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997). In fact, all of the industrial imagery and droning avant garde soundtrack would make Lynch green with envy as he would go on to employ it most famously in Eraserhead (1977).
If Red Desert is difficult to follow, Monica Vitti keeps us grounded with her empathy and charisma. Giuliana provides a glimmer of humanity in this hellish, industrialized landscape. Without her presence, the film would be relentlessly bleak. Red Desert is not an easy film to watch and understand if you’re used to conventional narrative cinema but one can sense that Antonioni is trying to say something – that this experimental approach has a purpose but he leaves it up to the audience to figure it out.
There is an audio commentary by Italian film scholar David Forgacs. He points out that the film’s original working title was Light Blue and Green but Antonioni went with his intuition and changed it because it needed to be felt rather than understood. Forgacs says that Monica Vitti claims that the genesis for Red Desert came from a crisis she’d been through in her life. He does a good job analyzing the film and making sense of it all. Forgacs also talks about how Italy’s socio-economical state influenced the film. He delivers a very informative track.
There is a 12-minute interview with Michelangelo Antonioni done for French television in 1964. He talks about how an industrial region near where he grew up inspired the film. He became fascinated with how it symbolized progress and even interviewed some of its workers. Antonioni also talks about using colour for the first time.
Also included is a 9-minute interview with Monica Vitti for French T.V. in 1990. She talks about meeting Antonioni for the first time and what it was like to be in his films while also being romantically linked in their personal lives. She tells some stories about a few of the films they made together.
“Dailies” is a collection of uncut and unfinished footage, some of it in black and white and some in colour, without any audio running 28 minutes in length.
Also included are two short documentaries that Antonioni made early on in his career. “Gente del Po” is an 11-minute film that saw him already exploring an individual’s relationship to their environment – a theme he would continue to explore in later films. “N.U.” is about the lives of street cleaners in Rome.
Finally, there is rather long trailer for the film.