If by 1964, Michelangelo Antonioni had made his reputation on immaculately framed case studies in urban ennui and disconnect, he hardly needed to make another film after L’Eclisse, the last 10 minutes of which more successfully render human end times than any science-fiction movie has ever imagined. In it, two furtive lovers (Alain Delon and Antonioni’s muse Monica Vitti, both sporting lips for days) agree to meet up in an area of Rome, designated by both probably because it boasts the most compellingly nonchalant architecture in the entire city, and fail to show up. But Antonioni’s movie persists, documenting what amounts to their cinematic extinction with cold perseverance. It’s as if humanity was just a moment in history that passed, nothing more, but nothing less. With an obligatory nod to Antonioni’s own forthcoming Zabriskie Point, L’Eclisse might contain the Atomic Age’s most apocalyptic climax.
With Red Desert, Antonioni reloads and renders that critical indifference in full color. But ironically, as he expands his palate, he compresses the breadth of human emotion into an even more compact sine wave, a frequency that no doubt matches the film’s uncompromising electronic music score. The rusted, concrete brutalism of Antonioni’s industrial backdrop is no red herring; Red Desert is one arid movie. It pushes past mere ennui into something even more desolate, an eschatological existentialism.
If the unofficial trilogy of L’Avventura, La Notte, and L’Eclisse are skeptical of human contact in the modern era, they are only that way to the extent that the characters inhabiting those films still appear to be making game attempts at jawing, screwing, and fleeing. In other words, they’re still people who need people. Red Desert, on the other hand, seems about as concerned with its characters as it does the birds smart enough to avoid flying through the plumes of factory smolder. For God’s sake, this is a movie in which the changing colors of the walls speak more for its humanoids’ emotional states than they ever convincingly vocalize for themselves—in much the same manner that Ingrid Bergman’s lustful turmoil is dissociated vis-à-vis the churning thrashes of a fishing village’s tuna catch in Stromboli.
And, in its own delicate, parsimonious manner, it’s absolutely gorgeous. Vitti (again) plays Giuliana, the wife of a factory owner who can’t seem to fully commit to rejoining the human race after a suicide attempt. Her husband Ugo (Carlo Chionetti) is too busy dealing with an ongoing strike among his workforce to offer up much support. His head is so far up his own machinery that he even speaks to his co-worker Zeller (Richard Harris) about her malady as though she’s just a cog in his life, saying she can’t seem to get into gear. Zeller makes a game attempt at grinding her gears, but to little apparent avail. The only thing that keeps Giuliana going is her cursory relationship with her son, to whom she shares her flights of fancy in the form of stories, vividly rendered in what, by Antonioni standards, constitutes garish deployment of hues.
Giuliana’s fantasy island would, in most movies, constitute the standard by which harsh existence is measured against, but anyone perceptive—or at least receptive—to Antonioni’s eye will find great beauty in what are clearly some of the most putrid forms of construction in modern times. His framing and notable pleasure placing his human models within shifting shots remains as palpable as it did when Vitti darted from setup to leering setup in L’Avventura‘s rape-suggestive interlude, or when Vitti avoided saying the obvious to her soon-to-be ex in the opening scene of L’Eclisse by fastidiously shifting knickknacks between each of the X, Y, and Z planes of a tabletop. Perhaps that’s the key to understanding Antonioni’s films of the early ‘60s, that modernism is better expressed through objects than ideas, through placement and physical presence than through ideas and psychology. If that’s the case, then Red Desert is easily as seminal as the three films that preceded it.
Let's not even speak of the heinous and, up to now, overpriced out-of-print Image Entertainment disc. Pretend it disappeared along with Anna. Criterion's new Blu-ray is, if not quite as eye-popping and flawless as their DVD edition of L'Eclisse, still stunning on its own terms. Antonioni's experiments with color are deliberately muted and selective, and the transfer renders those subtleties with unerring taste and restraint. There is quite a bit more grain in the image than I'd have hoped for, but better that than some misguided, flattening power wash. This is a film that depends on the power of its images, and Criterion's disc ensures Red Desert's potential to captivate. The uncompressed monaural sound presentation is oppressive in the best possible way. Try to forgive Antonioni and the other filmmakers Richard Harris's piss-poor dub job.
A perfectly well-stocked package all around. That said, it's clear that while I'm personally overly tolerant to Antonioni's longueurs and indulgences in stasis, I'm a little less tolerant of those qualities in commentary tracks. While there's no doubt film scholar David Forgacs's commentary for Red Desert is sharp and knowledgeable, I sort of pined for the slightly more down-to-earth, occasionally overly personal observations of Gene Youngblood, who guided DVD audiences through L'Avventura. Personal preference, obviously, and I'm sure most people will get everything they need out of Forgacs's yak track. For those who'd rather hear it from the horses' mouths, there are archive interviews with Antonioni himself as well as Monica Vitti. Also included in the booklet is an extended print interview between Antonioni and Jean-Luc Godard that I thank God wasn't included in audio form. Also in the booklet is an essay by Mark Le Fanu more dependent on comma splices than even I am, and Antonioni's written introductions to Gente del Po and N.U., two early documentary shorts which are also included on the disc. Rounding out the package are unpolished dailies from Red Desert's production and a theatrical trailer. All told, the extra features on this disc say everything the film's characters can't seem to.
Exquisitely rendered ennui. Criterion's Blu-ray edition of Red Desert will take you there.