I’m starting to think I’m not really into Antonioni. I acknowledge his skill just fine, and sometimes he’s captured some amazing things with subtext; but then there are times when he seems to get caught up in how things look, to the detriment of the rest of the film.
Like this film, for instance. Red Desert was Antonioni’s first foray into color film – and the look of things is gorgeous. Most of the action takes place in and around a petrochemical plant run by Ugo (Carlo Chianetti), with much of the landscape bathed in dull shades of grey punctuated by the shocking red of gas pipes, the sickly green of polluted waste water, and the acid yellow of toxic smoke. Most of the workers in the plant are also in greys and browns, and Ugo himself is in a conservative suit most of the time. Not so his wife Giuliana (Monica Vitti), a nervous woman who dresses in vivid colors in an effort to shake herself out of a weirdly persistent depressive state.
Giuliana catches the eye of Ugo’s friend Corrado (Richard Harris), visiting to recruit men for a business venture of his own. Ugo explains that Giuliana recently was in a car crash, that’s why she’s still a bit skittish. But as Corrado gets to know Giuliana – the pair bonding over a mutual dissatisfaction with modern life – he comes to suspect whether that “car crash” was the accident Ugo says it was.
And nothing else really…happens.
Now, for Antonioni this kind of existential ennui is usually kind of the point. Giuliana feels out of touch with modern life, the way that Lidia did in La Notte or Claudia did in L’Avventura. But in those earlier films, I had more of a sense where that disconnect came from, whereas here….not so much. I certainly see its effects – there’s a stunning shot partway through the film, as Giuliana gets spooked on an outing with Ugo and some other friends and starts for the car, urging the others to join her and head home. But when she looks back at them, they’re all standing still, looking at her with bafflement, as a thick fog from the nearby ocean rolls in and obscures them all one by one.
Antonioni clearly took great care with how this film would look. But I am afraid that the story itself suffered a bit, and so the whole film didn’t really gel for me.