Modern life is oppressive, we have lost our ability to feel, human relationships are impossible, industrial and machine landscapes are beautiful and horrible. These assumptions form, more or less, the entirety of our perception of Michelangelo Antonioni's reputation as a film artist. Regardless of whether these descriptive statements are true or false, they perpetuate the myth that no artist is so indomitably great that his or her work can't be reduced to a logline, a sales pitch, or a thesis statement. For Fellini, life was a circus. Bergman's films coldly analyze lust, the struggle of the creator, and other assorted dark nights of the soul. Bresson's actors were pushed to extremes of non-expressiveness. And so on.
The trouble with such generalizations is that they're formed—and enforced—at the precise distance a dilettante stands from the objects under scrutiny: arm's length. Look closer at single films and risk getting surprised by contradictory evidence. Stand far enough back to regard a career as a whole (as opposed to just looking at the "greatest hits") and a much more complicated, and often treacherous, terrain comes into view.
Career-wise, Antonioni's Red Desert is emblematic of his 1960-1964 period, but it also represents a transition. It was his last Italian-language film before embarking on a three-picture deal with MGM, the last in a series of four films with leading lady Monica Vitti (they would reteam once more in 1980 for The Mystery of Oberwald, a baroque, shot-on-video remake of Jean Cocteau's The Eagle Has Two Heads), and, as it is mandatory for any review of the film to note, it was Antonioni's first movie in full color.
Red Desert is a distillation of Antonioni's preferred themes and imagery: alienation, anxiety, modern life, and industrialized landscapes. With the acquisition of a color palette, however, Antonioni changes as much as he maintains the same course he established with the L'Avventura/La Notte/L'Eclisse cycle. The frames aren't simply "the black and white Antonioni" now colorized; his visual patterns have evolved as his preoccupations with the physical environment—alienating or not—overtake the human concerns (did Monica Vitti's Giuliana kickstart the "shrilly neurotic housewives of postwar cinema" movement?), seeming to mock, through an expanded visual frame, even the obliterated cadaver of melodrama that remained in the director's early-'60s trilogy.
As with most of Antonio's films from L'Avventura onward, the humor is subdued to the point where some might suggest that it's not there at all. But there's the Mon Oncle-on-'ludes domestic setting, with the robot toy on a perpetual bumper-car loop while Giuliana's boy slumbers, and the gyroscope-based top that the boy and his father play with at the midway point. The boy's indisputable "one plus one equals one" proof: using a chemistry set. Outside a factory, a miserably malnourished labor strike might as well be the opening act for the mimes of Blow Up.
In a sequence that helps to explain what distinguishes distinguishes Red Desert from the Antonioni films leading up to it, Harris (dubbed by an uncredited Giuseppe Rinaldi, who also provided Burt Lancaster's Italian voice for Bertolucci's 1900) enters a kind of trance while pitching a dozen or so skilled laborers to relocate to South America for a job. Harris's gaze, and ours, by way of legendary Carlo Di Palma's camerawork, wanders around the blue rails and frames of the factory floor. The faces of the men become icons planted into the backdrop, not at all what's foremost on Zeller's mind. If the film can be summed up in a gesture, it's this one: a meditation on the physical structures we impose on the land, a desire to wander into the morass of modernity, rather than flee from it, a look that is not so much concerned or worried as entranced, occasionally enthralled.