The early 1960s provided an abundant crop of that highly specialized micro-niche of films that focus on beautiful women cracking up. Ingmar Bergman, a true connoisseur of madness, set the standard with a couple of entries: Through a Glass Darkly and The Silence. Agnes Varda's Cleo From 5 to 7 gives us real-time accompaniment of a woman approaching the snapping point due to anxiety over her medical condition. Pier Palo Pasolini shows us the toll exacted by life as a street walking whore on a disgraced woman as she approached middle age in Mamma Roma. A case can be made that Jules and Jim's Catherine and Nana from Vivre sa vie each have their own struggles with mental illness, or at least some kind of compulsive disorders that prematurely ended both of their lives. And though Carnival of Souls doesn't boast the same art house pedigree as the films previously mentioned, it was made with that sensibility in mind; director Herk Harvey specifically cited his desire to make a film with "the look of a Bergman." Following in that vein then, Michelangelo Antonioni took his own turn exploring this territory with Red Desert, his follow-up to the celebrated "alienation trilogy" (L'avventura, La notte, L'eclisse) that vaulted him to the highest levels of acclamation in that Golden Age of international cinema. (Roman Polanski would soon continue the tradition with Repulsion, but I'll get to that some other time.)
Red Desert's distinctive contribution to this lineup is vividly conveyed by Antonioni's striking futuristic vision of the damage that rapid and reckless industrialization would inflict on the natural landscape, and also the human psyche. The most notorious aspect of his work here is undoubtedly the use of artificially enhanced color (by painting the objects he was filming, not treating the footage itself) in his compositions, most of which were shot on location in the industrial outskirts of Ravenna, Italy. The director famously remarked how he found the ANIC petroleum plant more interesting and beautiful than the woods across the street, a preference that I'll attribute to sheer novelty and the obvious creative possibilities to be found amidst the pipelines, smokestacks, control rooms and shipping docks he found there. He also uses a lot of soft focus, thick fog and behind-the-head subjective point of view shots to put us into the confused and disoriented perspective of Giuliana, a disaffected and moderately suicidal young woman, wife of Ugo, the plant manager and mother to a young son, Valerio.
Just as impressive, but perhaps not as immediately notable, is Red Desert's phenomenal soundtrack, especially the first 15 minutes or so. The employment of abrasive factory noise (humming dynamos, hissing steam valves, pulsating flame jets and hydraulic mechanisms, the indistinguishable roar of a functioning oil refinery) merges with electronic musical dissonance that jangles the nerves even today, and must have really set some viewers' teeth on edge back in 1964. After that opening sequence, the audio never quite reaches such levels of intensity again, but we're subjected to brief echoes of synthetic sonic flourishes that serve as cues, alerting us to Giuliana's deteriorating mental condition.
Monica Vitti portrays Giuliana in what I find to be a very compelling and magnetic demonstration of her talent. Some reviewers see her as a bit too mannered or affected in her performance, but I can't find any fault in her work here. She delivers quite well what Antonioni asks of her - a beautiful woman displaced in her own body and uncertain of her role in society, possessing all the domestic attributes that supposedly lead to satisfaction (family, sex appeal, affluence) but, to those around her, inexplicably paralyzed by a vague and indefinable sorrow. Giuliana's intuitive perception of the hollowed-out world she inhabits might promote, in a healthier setting, the development of a vibrant, artistically creative personality, as evidenced by the ceramic shop she has dubious notions of opening in a desolate industrial park, and later on, the enchanting fairy tale story she tells her son in Red Desert's most flamboyant diversionary, dream-like sequence:
But her current plight finds Giuliana floundering on all fronts - furtively asking strangers for food, straining to validate her maternal bond with Valerio, attention-seeking and emotionally unstable among her social peers, wracked by unresolved internalized conflicts stemming from erotic dysfunction. To Ugo, she's more of a decorative relic, a pretty indicator of her aloof husband's successful status, but kept at arms length due to her recent and recurring disturbing episodes. Giuliana sees clearly how off-kilter everything important to her has become, but she finds herself powerless to withstand the pressures mounting all around her. Thus, her acute insight is transformed into a disability, rendering her incapable of blocking out the toxicity that surrounds her, a sensitivity that her husband and friends seem to lack.
In her unguarded, befuddled state, Giuliana has a brief encounter with Corrado Zeller, a businessman colleague of her husband. As Ugo's confidante, Corrado's been made privy to some details of her recent mishaps involving a car accident and subsequent erratic behaviors. Their first meeting generates instant sparks, that recognizable gaze of interest that last just a few moments longer than usual, sparking an awareness on both ends of the exchange that a bit more intimate connection may be forged in the not too distant future. Ugo, either oblivious or simply apathetic, takes no precautionary steps to care for his ailing wife, setting them up for a predestined eruption of infidelity that, despite its exploitative creepiness when Corrado finally makes his move on a clearly disturbed and excessively vulnerable Giuliana, ends up being utterly inconsequential - a useless expenditure of time and energy, a pointless gratification of equally misdirected desires.
The ongoing debate over Red Desert, which I hardly purport to resolve here, is whether or not Antonioni's foray into experimental cinema (the color treatments, the long takes, the rambling narrative structure, the meandering inconclusiveness of it all) actually works or not. For me it does, and quite satisfyingly at that. I've watched it several times over the past week or so, in various formats (flat screen TV, laptop, even on my phone) and I find that the sheer abundance of ideas, along with the film's ability to effectively place me within its bleak and sterile psychological landscapes, amply rewards each revisit. But then again, I kind of enjoy the sense of disequilibrium that comes from immersing myself in Antonioni's work from this period. I haven't watched the film in close enough proximity to his earlier, highly regarded masterpieces to say whether or not I think it's "better" than L'avventura, La notte or L'eclisse. But I'll be digging into La notte soon enough at least, on the eve of its release as a Criterion title later this month. Look for my review over on criterioncast.com.
Next: Woman in the Dunes