Friday, March 11, 2011

Red Desert (1964) by Michelangelo Antonioni

Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni's 1964 piece 'Red Desert' is, on the surface, a film that deals with the changing face of the world under rampant industrialisation, but far more than that it's a comment on alienation and human adaptability in such a society. Guiliana (played by Monica Vitti) is the wife of petroleum plant manager Ugo. She lives in a spacious, modern apartment with Ugo and their small son, but there's an undercurrent of instability in Guiliana's persona, a feeling of unease and angst that Monica Vitti exhibits in Guiliana's every action. Vitti's portrayl of Guiliana is one of a woman on the point of a nervous breakdown, always fidgiting, wringing her hands, looking at unease and full of angst and continually walking away from conversations, forcing others to follow her. The way her character hugs close to walls at every opportunity is allegorical of her need to be surrounded by friends, family and loved ones, claiming that she "is only ill when I'm alone". We find out that Guiliana had recently been in a car accident and had spent a month in hospital being treating for shock, but unbeknownst to Ugo, Guiliana isn't adjusting well after her accident, while her husband remains entirely oblivious. Into the frame comes Corrado Zeller (Richard Harris), an engineer friend of Ugo on his way to set up a new petrolium plant in Patagonia. Zeller is a quiet, reserved man who, like Guiliana, is visibly at unease with his surroundings, however his life and work afford him the luxury of moving from place to place, while Guiliana feels increasingly trapped in her existence. Inexorably, Zeller and Guiliana are drawn to each other, Zeller recognising a kindred spirit of sorts and Guiliana casting out a cry for help that only Zeller is capable of recognising. The fact that Zeller picks up on this and is continually drawn to Guiliana, despite her unstable, demanding behaviour, immediately points to his attraction to her, but it's only after acting on his attraction that Guiliana comes to accept her station and encounters her defining realisation; people aren't cured, they adapt.

But it's not just Guiliana's life she has to adapt to, it's her surroundings, beautifully brought to screen in what was, quite surprisingly, Antonioni's first foray into colour. With a telephoto lens to flatten the perspective, framing scenes purposefully out of focus and the use of disarming long-cut shots, Antonioni paints a bleached and chemical picture of post-war Italy, an Italy that expanded into an industrial super-power at an alarming rate. Antonioni was so adamant about how this world should be presented that he insisted on painting trees, barrels, walls and even whole fields to ensure the results he envisioned. An extreme measure, certainly, but a welcome one as the stark, sterile greys of this industrial Italy, juxtaposed here and there with flourishes of artificial, man-made colour, are often brought to the forefront of the viewer's mind when at times the pacing and ambiguity of the narrative create a lull in interest. Those man-made colours provide another allegorical point, alluding to how the society of this industrial community has adapted to the bleak repetitiveness of the environment by injecting splashes of primary colour into their surroundings. One criticism that's easy to level at 'Red Desert' is that it's an entirely singular film - Guiliana is undoubtedly the protagonist of this piece, but everyone else, even the ambiguous love interest Zeller, appears on screen barely defined. This might be a problem for anyone expecting a traditional narrative, but that's not what 'Red Desert' is about. There's no real progression of story here, only the progression of Guiliana's mental state, everything else is quite incidental and as such, is not admitted entry into Antonioni's vision. It's this bold vision that provides the films defining hallmarks; the remarkable cinematography that surrounds Monica Vitti's accomplished, if somewhat overwrought, performance.

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