Lately with me it’s been all existentialism, existentialism, existentialism. After the deep existential meanings I gleaned from Toy Story 3 I bought a “Best of Existentialism” book and read it [discovering that I had been an existentialist ALL ALONG!], and somewhere in here, something told me that it was time to see Red Desert again. Good call, me, because this turns out to be an existentialist film par excellence. As well as being utterly gorgeous and somehow simultaneously soul-sucking and life-affirming, in a way only existentialist stuff can be. Oh, and by the way, some people consider this among the most boring films of all time.
So this is the first film in color by Antonioni, who brought us L’Avventura and would go on to bring us Blowup. The first thing we see are these huge factory buildings, slightly out-of-focus behind the credits, as we hear clanging, hissing industrial noises. We meet Monica Vitti [Antonioni’s lover at the time] as Guiliana, walking with her son, Valerio. She stops and stares at a man eating a sandwich, then runs up to him and offers to buy the half-eaten sandwich. She gets it, walks off a little way, takes a bite, then turns and stares in appalled horror at this gray gravel landscape, dotted with half-buried trash, all covered with the same gray dust.
We now meet her husband, Ugo, in shots like the one above, where you may, like me, be stunned by their industrial beauty and careful composition. There are a lot of shots in the film to come in which a window frames something [usually industrial] outside, making a little photograph within the frame. Her husband receives visitor Richard Harris as Corrado Zeller, there for work, who takes an immediate and somewhat inappropriate interest in Guiliana. Ugo tells Corrado that Guiliana was in a minor car accident which shook her up psychologically. She spent a month in the hospital, and still isn’t quite right. During this time they walk outside the factory, and at one point there is this massive explosion of steam that the two men stand and watch.
Okay, let’s step back. You recall from L’Avventura how Antonioni was renowned for “inventing a new film language” for using the background of shots to express his characters’ emotional states. In this film, that has transformed into these industrial events which do not advance the plot and have nothing to do with the story per se, still must be counted as events and content in their own right. When Guiliana stares at the toxic, gray landscape, we are seeing what horrifies her about the world she’s living in and why she sees no hope, or can find any interest in living there. Similarly the explosion of steam shows these massive, inhuman forces at work, which are now transforming and becoming the spaces in which humans live. If you don’t see anything in these sequences, of course the film will seem stupefyingly boring to you, and like nothing is happening. However, if you are able to go with it and sense the inchoate horror and emptiness of these passages, the film can be RIVETING.
Guiliana gets up in the middle of the night, but soon has a panic attack and becomes paralyzed. Ugo finds her, but soon starts feeling up her legs and wanting to make love [perhaps key to why she has lost feeling for him, as he’s about as sensitive as a doorknob]. The next day Corrado makes an unscheduled visit to Guiliana while Ugo is out. He says Ugo didn’t tell him anything about Guliana’s problem, then says he “doesn’t want to start with a lie,” to which she justly replies: “Start what?” She says she met a girl while in the hospital who had lost all interest in living her life. The doctor told her she “Must learn to love something… her husband… her son.” They then visit the wife of one of the company’s workers, who says that if her husband went away for work, even for a short time, she’d “go mad.” They then go walking through this field that contains all these massive antennas pointing up to space, as well as giant fetid puddle containing what seems to be toxic waste. They meet a man from the company who says “waste has to go somewhere,” then Corrado mentions a guy at a restaurant the day before commenting that his eel tasted like petroleum. We find out that Ugo was away on business—and didn’t come back—when Guiliana had her accident [recall the wife who said she’d go mad if her husband went away?].
SPOILERS > > >
Ugo and other businessmen, and their wives/lovers, meet in the middle of the field. One of them says “Sorry, this isn’t the best place for a meeting,” then they spend a few minutes staring morosely at the toxic waste. They go into this cabin, where one of the guys talks about eating fertilized eggs as an aphrodisiac, whereupon Guiliana eats a few [check out the ever-so-slightly vaginal oyster on the plate with the eggs], and the couples retreat into a room near the back to have an orgy. Only, this is Antonioni, where people seek sex and pleasure as some small way to distract themselves from the pain of life, and soon it seems our characters are too disaffected to even have sex. In there you will [hopefully] be blown away by the careful production design, placing the RED room where the orgy is to occur within the pale blue-white of the outer room. BUT the pale white-blue has been painted over a layer of bright red, and has several scratches all over the walls that appear as livid red wounds. As all this goes on we hear a distant fog horn. Soon a huge ship pulls up outside which, they believe, is quarantined due to infectious disease.
Soon Guiliana admits her love of Corrado, how he looks at her, and understands her [in contrast to her dumbfuck husband]. She tells him the woman she met at the hospital was actually herself, and that she tried to kill herself while at the hospital. After this whole thing with her son and a fantasy sequence [I can’t tell you EVERYTHING!] she goes over to Corrado’s house, distraught, saying that she’s afraid of “Buildings… colors… everything.” Corrado forces himself on her, despite her obviously NOT wanting to have sex. She gets away, and he forces himself on her again. And again [by the way, you would not believe the violence that can be implied by a bent red bedframe]. Finally they have sex. Guiliana briefly wakes in a pink room. She tells Corrado that he didn’t help. It is not spelled out, but my interpretation is that she thought he was different, he understands her, and that an affair with him might be just what she needs to shake her out of her funk—but finds to her disappointment that he is not at all what she had hoped. If you’ve ever been there, you can imagine how devastating this moment is.
Guilana gets up, and goes outside. She tries to get on one of the huge cargo ships, but is stopped by a Russian sailor. She asks him if she can go as a passenger. She just wants to run away. Guiliana makes a speech to him—and to us, the audience—saying among other things “I have to understand that everything that happens to me IS my life” [pretty much an existentialist manifesto if there ever was one]. Then it is later, and we see Valerio playing amongst the chemical steam. They look at the factory, and Valerio asks “Why is that smoke yellow?” Guiliana replies “Because it’s poisonous.” Valerio asks why the birds don’t die, and Guiliana responds that they have learned, and they don’t fly there anymore.” THE END!
< < < SPOILERS END
On the Criteron disc there is a good short interview with Antonioni about this film—that will amaze you that journalists once asked insightful questions and directors were articulate and gave densely intelligent answers—in which Antonioni says the idea for the film came from watching the nearby town of Ravenna become more and more industrialized over the course of his life. He resists the interpretation that Guiliana was DRIVEN crazy by the industrialism, but says instead that that environment offers her no place or reason to recover. He says that he did not have any particular painters in mind [apparently some had likened his compositions to paintings], and that he will go so far as to paint trees or a road in order for the color to work with his composition. By the way, some of the scenes with Harris had to be re-shot because Harris walked off the set toward the end of the film! There are varying stories about why—one of which is that Harris punched Antonioni in frustration at his filming methods—but it’s a little ironic, as I have NEVER seen Harris deliver such a wonderful, really subtle and engaged performance.
On the whole, I WORSHIP it, but as I said, to many, this is legendary in its dullness. Many people feel that “nothing is happening” in a film when people are just talking and plot is not advanced. Still more feel that nothing is happening when there’s not even dialogue, you’re just staring at industrial waste or exploding steam… which is a lot of what’s going on here. But all those things express the cold, toxic world where Guiliana can find no reason to live, and show you, the viewer, exactly why. If you’re not getting into the film, I would recommend just watching it as a photography show [which it certainly stands up beautifully as], and regard each shot as you would a photograph in a gallery: “Why would someone take a picture of this? What is the overall mood and atmosphere it conveys?”
But if you do get into it, this film can become somewhat of a philosophy of life, leading some writers on IMDb to describe it as “a template for how they view reality” and a film another would “deify, if I could.” Personally, I confess that this film really spoke to me and my view of the world and what can be expected from life. Haven’t you ever had that moment where you’re looking at, say, a long stretch of road lined with fast-food restaurants and cheap furniture outlets and rent-a-centers and crappy chain stores and just thought “My God, what is the point? Why would anyone want to exist in this kind of world? Seriously, WHY go on?” this movie will speak to you. Because those moments are what Guiliana turning around and being horrified by the ashen gray environment or the group looking at the toxic waste, then suddenly becoming morose and losing interest in sex is all about. Or if you’ve tried to express these thoughts to someone, only to have them tell you that you simply “Can’t think about that,” or worse, “Be positive!” Or, nauseatingly, “Smile!” If you’re that person, there is someone who understands you, and he’s made a movie just for you.
Yes, pretty much everyone should at least give it a try.