Red Desert : Michelangelo Antonioni embraces colour

Giuliana”…must confront her social environment. It’s too simplistic to say – as many people have done – that I am condemning the inhuman industrial world which oppresses the individuals and leads them to neurosis. My intention… was to translate the poetry of the world, in which even factories can be beautiful. The line and curves of factories and their chimneys can be more beautiful than the outline of trees, which we are already too accustomed to seeing. It is a rich world, alive and serviceable… The neurosis I sought to describe in Red Desert is above all a matter of adjusting. There are people who do adapt, and others who can’t manage, perhaps because they are too tied to ways of life that are by now out-of-date.”  

Michelangelo Antonioni

The above message is underlined by the closing remarks in the film when Giuliana and her son are looking at the factories. The boy asks his mother,’ why is the smoke yellow?’ Giuliana replies ‘because its poison.’ Her son observes ‘If a small bird flew through it, it will die.’ and his mother replies, ‘Don’t worry. The small bird has already learnt not to fly through the yellow smoke.’

This is one of the central messages of Red Desert. It is not industrial disease (of sorts) that is killing Giuliana from within, it is her inability to adapt. Antonioni is taking a different view from the anti-industrialists at the time, in that rather than seeing polluting factories as the enemy that causes ill-health, it is clinging to an outdated world that causes ill-health.

The idea has certain appeal, but what is interesting about this film is that the ill-health the factories are spilling into the world is not glossed over. The key protagonists may laugh at the peasant who is complaining that his eel tastes like oil, but they are confronted continually with ugliness in the form of yellow smoke, pools of stagnant poisonous sludge and dead rivers that are killing their surrounding vegetation.

The man-made structures that are part of this landscapes ‘new beauty’ are not all factories either. Another key scene shows Giuliana talking to a man high in a radio tower. She asks who owns the towers and the man replies the university owns them. When she asks what they are for, he tells her they are used for gathering information about the stars. She then asks if he is scared to be up so high, and he answers that he is used to it.

the film is made up of people who can adapt and people who can’t. Giuliana, of course, can’t. Her husband can. The striking workers at his plant, can’t. The men who ARE working on these and other projects, can. The suggestion is almost that chronic ennui (the kind of stasis that leads to suicide) is caused by an inability to adapt to ones changing environment and interact with it. Corrado (Richard Harris) can adapt, but only by separating himself repeatedly from his landscape by moving and living in temporary accommodations. Guliana’s son can adapt, but he does so by emulating his parents. Sickness from his mother, recovery from his father.

The plot is slight. We meet Giuliana (Monica Viti)  just after she has been convalescing in hospital after a car accident. Her husband Ugo (Carlo Chionetti) was away on business at the time and because she kept the suicide from him and seemed to be ok, didn’t come back to her bedside. This indifference has left a strain on the marriage and combined with Giuliana’s already ailing mental health, begins a deterioration in the marriage of which he seems blissfully unaware. Giuliana is drawn to Ugo’s work colleague Corrado (Richard Harris) although continues to resist his attempts to seduce her. As Guliana descends into a kind of self-inflicted, fear induced madness, her connection to Corrado grows stronger.

Antonioni gives the best sense of fear driven paralysis I have ever seen on the screen in this film. I’m a fan of existential angst – I have a real soft spot for it (HUGE Godard fan) but can I say Antonioni, in true Italian style, makes Godard look like a master of the understatement. Depictions of Giuliana’s suffering are, in short, insufferable. It gets to the point where you just can’t bear to look. Scenes drive on, long past their dramatic point, with her writing about in self induced agony. These work completely to give you the sense of her state of mind. Despite Antonioni’s attachment to the landscape, shots are filmed from various angles throughout scenes deliberately to alienate the viewer from continuity and connection to the landscape. (for an amazing analysis of how this works, check out The Film Sufi’s break down here) Because the message is clear – adapt to your environment or die – Antonioni gives us no opportunity to attach to the environment, in order to enhance our sense of Giuliana’s desperation. Scenes are disconnected as well, often leaping from one setting to another with no sense of journey or segue between. Events are unsatisfying and obtuse, such as an ‘orgy’ scene where no one has sex and ends in the orgy room being dismantled and burnt in a fire. Cold is used constantly. Everywhere Giuliana goes, she is asked if she is cold. Everyone wants to make her warm, but no one can.

Of course, what I haven’t mentioned, but is the most striking aspect of the film is what Antonioni has done with the colour. This is his first colour film, and he dives in like a man who knows how to adapt and survive. The colour, and use of geometrical shapes and clean lines in this film is nothing short of breathtaking. If you can stand the sense of helplessness you will feel. the beauty will carry you through. Antonioni is famous for coloring grass, trees (in this film a beach) and entire town scapes to fulfil his desire for a certain sort of colour and you are at the birth place of all of that here. This is a passionate attention to line, form and colour that I’ve never seen the likes of in a film. Beginning the movie with spurts of flame from tall smokestacks, he captures the mysteries of modern technology—and makes Giuliana, with her bright clothing and frosted hair, an inextricable part of it. Though the chilly design of the couple’s apartment reflects the clean yet barren lifestyle that advanced industrial technology sustains, Antonioni celebrates the alluring abstractions of high-tech industry itself, with its pure geometry of spheres, arcs, and planes. Dusted coloured tankers roll past windows in almost every shot. IN fact the dullest shots are saved for interiors of homes, representing interiors of the people.

In terms of the existential, this is a very philosophical film. It is definitely an examination in terms of cinema of he phenomenology of perception. In particular, certain ideas of Soren Kierkegaard, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Martin Heidegger can be perceived within the cinematic structure of Antonioni’s film, and these ideas lie outside the realm of traditional film-critical categories. Starting with a difference between existence and essence. A thing exists because it has properties that distinguish it from nothing. A thing exists as a relational point because it has essence – that is, things can relate to it. Existence precedes essence.  A thing can be called into existence without necessarily being relational t the things around it. Just as so, the essence can be engaged with, without needing to address existence. that is, it can be engaged with by the human mind. This was Kierkegaard’s point, that essence accounted for time, will, and individuation.

Thus it was that by considering the concrete nature of existence, which he felt Hegelianism overlooked, Kierkegaard introduced the related idea of nothingness. In other words the scientific method applied to objects in the world may have its uses, but it does not render an accurate accounting of our experiences of objects nor of our experience of each other – each of which can only be adequately dealt with by a philosophy that considers existence as well as essence. It is this nothingness that Antonioni wants to address through Giuliana in Red Desert. One of the techniques Antonioni used was to shoot much of the film in which Giuliana’s perspective is in focus with very long (in focal length) lenses. This technique creates a very short depth of field resulting in a strong psychological response. It is closer to our actual visual representation for one, plus the objects that are out of focus lose the functionality that we associate with them. When an object is out of focus, it loses its essential qualities and therefore our essential experience of them changes as well. They become abstract entities.

In an interview with Godard about this film, Antonioni states:

“It is a less realistic film, from a figurative point of view. That is to say, it is realistic in a different way. For example, I used the telescopic lens a great deal in order not to have a deep focus, which is for good reason an indispensable element of realism. What interests me now is to place the character in contact with things, for it is things, objects, and materials that have weight today.”

Therefore we will find that the film lacks depth in the relationship between human creatures because the film is about Gulianas relationship to THINGS. In this way the actors are muted themselves to become things. Corrardo is often given a bland style of colour and line imagery so that he almost blends into the background. Sometimes the son is treated in the same way. This is to give us a sense of Gulianas lost grip on reality – her altered concept of the objects around her and her relationship to them.

Another way that Antonioni does this is through colour and colour manipulation. This is not a film that just wants to be a beautiful painting. Antonioni himself states:

“There is, in this film, no pictorial research at all; we are far from painting, it seems to me. . . . Moreover, I had never thought about color in itself. The film was born in colors, but I always thought, first of all, of the thing to be said – this is natural – and thus aided the expression by means of the color. I never thought: I’m going to put a blue next to a maroon.”

The use of colour is to enhance the perceptual nature of things. It is so the visual is drawn outside of universal human experience to the interior of the essence of being human. Relationships between objects are played with, colours needn’t match but they draw us into each other bringing shapes and objects together so we can see things in a spatially different way.

“It’s a way of approaching the character in terms of things rather than by means of her life. Her life, basically interests me only relatively.”

Giulianas husband Ugo is an essentialist. He relates to his son through mechanical toys. he is a kind sweet man, but he has little capacity for connection. He tells his son that the toy is able to stand up on its own because it has a gyroscope in it, which is a completely reductionist statement – it reduces the entire experience to a mechanical function. There is a blatant disregard for existence here and the view is left feeling frustrated about his relationship with his son.

Finally, at the end of the film when Giuliana talks to her son about the birds, we know she is going to adapt just like everyone around her.  The larger question concerning the inadequacy of our thought patterns remains unresolved. Giuliana will do this to survive her own madness. The extraordinary thing about  Red Desert is that it deals with profound aspects of existence in an immediate fashion. It concerns the phenomenology of perception and expresses itself through perception.