Copyright © 2011 by James Clark
Complainers tend to be a bore, and complainers about their emotional states seldom come close to the level of fascination. This is an intuition that has consigned the films of Michelangelo Antonioni’s prime to a precarious stature. Particularly as sustained by his go-to exponent of nausea, the actress, Monica Vitti, Antonioni has made difficult headway in enunciating a bind that, in the casino of movie production, has moved him to commit all his chips. Was this a mistake, or what?
In view of the demonstrable fact that that plunge has galvanized a goodly portion of subsequent film production, we have to recognize that, at the very least, it spotlights a consequential addiction. There has, of course, always been historical friction; but that conflict has, until quite recently, always implied a fraternal disorder, allowing of an ultimate resolution, such an upbeat approach to conscious interaction being the essence of that rationality defining civilization as universally understood.
In what was arguably the ne plus ultra of his early 1960s flyers, namely, Il Deserto Rosso (Red Desert) (1964), Antonioni scripted the following line for “Ugo,” husband of “Giuliana,” recently hospitalized for shock stemming from a non-fatal driving mishap. “Her gears still don’t mesh.” Ugo, the easily recognized picture of sound mental health, is the director of a huge industrial plant at the Northern Adriatic city of Ravenna, and, not merely a pilot of lucrative scientific/technological know-how and efficient staffing, but a leading light in what was then referred to as “the Italian miracle” of the post-War era. Near the outset, strikers swarm along the roadway of a vast multiplicity of factories. A little car with loudspeakers installed on the roof stops by Ugo’s place and a strike leader tries to rally a key technician within the firmly fenced precincts. “Your wife is ashamed to show her face…” Their grievances are clearly at the disposal of such far-reaching vision as we have noted. Ugo, showing a visiting industrialist, “Corrado,” around his property (and whom he had been quick to inform about his wife’s not being an effective teammate), gives him some tips for staffing a project in Patagonia; but he jokingly warns, “Hands off!” when Corrado gazes enviously at a crew of his own strike-proof workers. And then there is Giuliana, who, from beginning to end, is a one-person Crash, also quite easily kept in line but waging, with neither associates nor consistency, her own vigil on behalf of better days. Her eyes are shot through with gloom and horror (in marked contrast to Ugo’s on-top-of-the-world peepers) and, as she accompanies her young son, “Valerio,” along that same roadway, we could make the mistake that what’s bugging her are the astonishing eruptions of flames, toxic gases, shrieks and roars and rivers of sludge flowing from that dockside theatre of rational progress.
Despite Antonioni’s explicit insistence that the momentum of this film has to do with the visual glories of both the worn and shiny architecture and the gritty and slimy emissions, most viewers, perhaps under the sway (direct or indirect) of Pauline Kael’s perversity here (as a vigilante on behalf of the rude and ancient rewards of canniness), choose to regard Giuliana as a shrinking violet (over and above a case of trite “emotional chaos”) and, as such, a reproof against crude materialism. This assumption about the protagonist as a medieval heroine (in a city boasting a repository of major medieval artefacts) has to be weighed against her tangible embellishment by a wardrobe of advanced, understated chic in its designs, colors and fabrics, and a coiffure and cosmetic regime not generally included in the presence of pathological ascetics. Corrado follows her to a retail property she anticipates developing into a ceramics gallery. We notice that the paint sampling on a bare wall resembles (minus the chromatic zing) abstract paintings by Mark Rothko wherein simple, serene chords of color activate kinetic lushness. She’s explicitly concerned that the decor not “clash” with the merchandise. Indicative of how alert she is to the tectonics of the surround as vitally implicated in her untying the straightjacket against which she chafes, is her parry and thrust, apropos of Corrado’s gambit, as prompted by her questioning his poking around the location. “Looking for me?”/ “I saw you go in… No, that’s not true. I don’t want to start with a lie.”/ “Start what?”
In seemingly being more apt to make eye contact with her than Ugo, and—as stuck with being a captain of industry after his father’s death—less content to live off the fat of the land as conveyed his way by snappy calculation, Corrado does interest Giuliana. The narrative current of this attachment comprises important subtleties demanding close scrutiny. Showing a discriminatory bent making some sense to her, he tells her he’s had a lot to do with both Milano and Bologna but neither makes him “happy.” At her shop space she is anxious about whether Ugo mentioned her breakdown. He makes the information seem confined to osteopathic adjustments. “Nothing serious, right?” Convinced or not with his second lie of their brief acquaintance, she accompanies him on an attempt to net a key technician for his next address at the end of the earth. Passing a catch of live fish at a stall on the street (an event that unnerves her and prompts her declaring, “You can’t imagine the things I’m afraid of”), he asks her, “Could you eat me?”/ She smiles and says, “If I loved you.” Looking up the prospect’s wife to determine his whereabouts, there is a lull during which Giuliana heavy-handedly recalls “a sick girl I met in the hospital. She was told by her doctor, “You must learn to love someone or something.” She wanted it all… but soon she felt there was no ground beneath her… By the time she left the hospital, she was wondering, ‘Who am I?’” [that latter cliché costing her plenty]. This thinly-veiled self-revelation in hopes of some kind of profitable contact goes off the rails in an instructive way. They find the prize catch working nearby at a radio telescope facility. Whereas Giuliana goes through the motions of being engrossed by “listening to the stars,” the real monitoring here involves listening to Corrado trying to corral the technician in disregard for driving a wedge between him and his wife. “He won’t say no.” (The work camp in Argentina has no allowance for loved ones, and the men can contact their wives by phone only once a week.) She claims, perhaps dubiously, that the worker (who, before the interview is done, turns him down, eliciting a concealed smile from her) has had a spate of hospitalization similar to hers. Their next stop is a vertiginous social event in a shed by the canal leading to the sea, at the arrestingly raw-boned centre one would hesitate to call an “industrial park.” It features Ugo, a couple of his employees and three female toys. Before coming to that stage, she has already realized that her counter-corporate talent search has run aground, notwithstanding the fantasy of regarding the telescope guy as a soul mate.
That leaves, however, an appointment with the carnality of (medically prescribed) “love” on an even more close range (telescopic) level. Cueing the drive into her multi-task foray, we find Giuliana and Corrado at the parking area, oozing some kind of relentless detritus. (Ugo berates her, “With all your shoes, you come out here in those?”) As she marks time in the freezing slush, pacing on the spot, Corrado draws from her the chill factor that Ugo did not see fit to cut short a business trip to touch base with her in the hospital. In a bid to assure her he’s more sensitive than that, he embarks on a monologue about the difficulties of deriving a cogent action—leading to not knowing what to believe in, not knowing whether there is anything to be said on behalf of progress and being at a loss about what to make of socialism. He wraps it up with satisfaction that he’s doing what he thinks is right. “I’m at peace.” That, clearly, is not the kind of good news Giuliana can digest. She gives him a patronizing smile and says, “That’s sure a bunch of words you’ve strung together.”
Prior to the desultory stab at an orgy (in a setting that includes worn down wallpaper with a zebra motif, other walls in quite stunning but distressed cherry red, and Corrado’s going on to tell her, “A change of historical setting can be good”), her attention is held by a massive black hull shrouded by fog and emissions, calmly drifting down the canal, a stand of trees in the foreground. The subdued swoosh of the big machine speaks to her as no person can. (This slowness of narrative disclosure, triggering Ms. Kael’s insistent ire, requires the kind of attention span that may not chalk up mass adulation, but it addresses a logic the painful approach to a mastery of which is, in the hands of unspritely but hardly dead Giuliana, quite ridiculously far from “emotional chaos.” In what must be the definitive demonstration of the folly of expecting a director to explain what his film is about, the supplement to the work in question shows Antonioni on French television keeping a straight face while assuring the interviewer that Giuliana is a “neurotic,” and that he exhaustively researched that condition. “I’ve spent whole days with people like that.” By the way, Corrado launches some more match-stick creations into the precincts of the canal: “I quickly lose interest… It’s absurd to take work so seriously.”) We see the party commencing with what we assume to be a close-up of her legs and feet being dried at a wood-burning stove; but as the camera draws back the figure is in fact the mistress of one of Ugo’s colleagues, whose wife is also along. Like the ship, the embers easily upstage the lovers. Giuliana buys into a lame joke about the quails’ eggs on the snack menu being an aphrodisiac and asserts to Ugo she wants to make love, which sends a ripple of laughter through the crowd. There is reference to one of the guys being a “stallion,” and there is a survey of favourite “energy boosters,” only serving to draw a bead upon a true carnality that has escaped—who knows how, who knows when? The party unravels in their tearing apart the clapboard interior to fuel the stove and stave off freezing, and in one instance of the grace-bearing freighters being flagged as harboring smallpox. This latter development sends them all scurrying into a thick fog, Giuliana, in panic, getting behind the wheel and nearly driving off the end of the dock. “I made a mistake. I just wanted to drive home.” (Having subsided into sullenness during the forced festivities, she expresses to Corrado her distaste for the sea in its never being still.)
The concluding movement of the film tracks the protagonist’s arriving at a questionably viable rendition of carnal poise. Though Corrado is still a player at this point, he is now upstaged by her husband and son, by way of ushering us into the most promising cards in a barely manageable hand. Ugo is about to hit the road again, and, along with assembling his crisply correct attire from out of a very Italian, whimsically rustic and ancient wardrobe chest, she beholds son and Dad in strong concord amongst a little robot, a microscope and a bit of liquid, still as can be on a viewing plate, but discoverable in its roiling, dynamic infrastructure. (Valerio, already very much his father’s son in combative assurance in face of slower-moving, exploitable inferiors, walks her into the puzzlement that two blue drops can become one—a banal mathematics that his inconsequential Mom is, unbeknown, in the process of treating on a grown-up level.) Then, as a piece de resistance at this send-off time, Ugo thrills Valerio with a gyroscopic toy, “a device to steady ships in rough seas.” The boy proves even more intent upon destabilization. Much preferred Dad having withdrawn his services, Valerio claims to have become paralyzed in both legs and Giuliana is swept up in a surge of grief and terror. After a day of this hell she is visited by an even more brutal assault in discovering that the boy is as sound as he’ll ever be. Rebounding from this dead-end, she rushes to Corrado’s hotel and his bed. (She had previously declared—in questioning his Patagonian campaign and its “abandoning everything,” involving his option, “Maybe you don’t come back”—“You’re part of me now… Relocating doesn’t have to leave everything behind…If Ugo could look at me the way you do…In the hospital, I tried to kill myself.” This is delivered as being a wrong turn in research, as against a marvel of personality. “I was ashamed.”) Corrado asks about the supposed invalid, and she tells him, “He doesn’t need me… I need him!” (Valerio’s body language at this time of her anxiety about him exudes contempt for her not being normally callous, like Ugo.) After some befuddled approaches toward her host, she asks, “You don’t love me, do you?”/ “Why do you ask that?”/ “I must be an idiot. That’s why I can’t manage. I didn’t get better. I’ll never get better.” He digs an even deeper hole for himself by saying, “It’s just an illness, like any other.” He will also reply to her, “I’ve done everything to readjust to reality,” with, “You mustn’t think about these things.” Her loss of all sensual appetite (recalling the film’s beginning, when she buys a half-eaten sandwich from a striker, offers it [for effect] to Valerio, who rudely turns her down, then goes off to some bushes to tear away at it, registering zero joy, and, in a sharp indicator of non-mastery, tosses the wrapper to add to the build-up of filth) renders her bid for affection painful to behold, and their embraces become parodies of fashion ads. The last words he will ever hear from her—“Even you didn’t help me, Corrado”—are less an indictment of him as a specific individual than they are an articulation that solitary priorities alone can lead to solvency.
So it is that her bed-time story, to the still credible Valerio in his bedridden posture, blazing through the gloom, in vivacious, tropical colors and configurations, provides a deep scope of her heart and its happening upon an industry sustained by a new science (knowing) treating of a new kinetic physicality. A girl who lived alone on an island with a beach of pink sand, being “bored and frightened by grownups,” enjoys just lying there, soaking up the sun, until she is thrilled by a powerful ship coming into view, with billowing white sails and plunging through heavy seas. She swims out to it. It turns and sails away, another instance of well-known unforthcomingness. Back on the beach, she hears a song sung by a haunting voice, a woman’s voice. She tries to locate its source, swimming here and there, pacing here and there. Who was singing? “Everything was singing. Everything.” She had framed that discovery with allusion to both an interpersonal wall (of the wayward ship) and an intrapersonal wall (of the wayward, siren song within). “One mystery was enough. Two were too many!” Soon after posing this dilemma, she is aghast at the cruelty and shabbiness capturing her little boy’s sensibility (as in thrall to Ugo). (When asked by him, even before realizing the fraud she had been drawn into, to draw a picture for his amusement, she had whipped off a chalk portrait of an alien with a purple face and a slash of gold from neck to forehead.) All she can say is, “Why…?” Having written off Corrado, and come to a desperate but crystalline realization that she is fighting a war on two fronts that allow of a continuous gesture (as in the portrait), she makes her way to the only theatre available to her, a rancid family in a rancid place. The preamble to showing us how far she’s come (belying the remark, “I’ll never get better.”) involves her flight from Corrado’s hotel, her ditching him at her retail site and her making a vastly futile check into the (im) possibility of booking passage on a freighter, the Balkan mate from which politely impressing upon her that there is zero comprehension and zero traction along such lines. In the course of being conclusively disabused about the mad cliché that there’s a haven out there—or, even more delirious, a place where her overtures would not be more or less politely, “open-mindedly” savaged—Giuliana (whose impressive auburn hair had been a prominent feature of the writhing and pawing with Corrado) plays off her physical presence, including her wardrobe, against the storm-worn beauty of docked ships’ hulls, in particular, one with an achingly subtle blue complemented by sand-like areas of brown and gold near the water level. That vestigial progression in a visceral logic—making sense of her complaint, on arriving at Corrado’s hotel, “My hair hurts”—addresses, in the vocabulary of the peculiar drama at hand, her overt exasperation amidst the plunging equity of her newest friendship/investment, “Why must I always need other people?” Trying to get across to the non-speaker of Italian her reason for being there in the middle of the night, she in fact does a brief check of her own gear (that Ugo could at least see as needing work—though having not a clue as to the nature of the work). “I haven’t made up my mind… I can’t decide, because I’m not a single woman… I’m sort of separated… I’ve been sick but I mustn’t think about that. It’s my life…” Then it’s the next day, and she’s wearing her (lucky) shamrock green coat again, the one she wore when we first saw her amidst the strikers), which tentatively touches upon the hardware and the desolation of the smoke zone. Valerio is stamping upon some turf that emits jets of steam. “Why’s it do that?”/ “I don’t know” (her voice and face indicating that she’s onto another set of “mysteries). She smiles at him. “Let’s go. Be careful.” “Why is the smoke yellow?”/ “Because it’s poisonous” (again, no more panic). Still pushing buttons that used to work, he claims, “If little birds fly into it, they die.”/ “The little birds don’t fly there anymore.” She strides away with him.
The exuberantly embellished awfulness and dazzlement of the technological miracle form a partnership with the torrid and seductive dream. Two mysteries, it transpires, are not in fact “too many.” Seeing into the heart of such not hard to find darkness becomes a necessary moment within the course of an invisible but ambitious hearkening to a Siren song that is not necessarily about murder. In her dreamy children’s story, Giuliana looks to an idyll on an isolated island. Getting past that, she sets up for herself a remote island of bemused wariness the better to learn a hard physical trade by which to find crafts and craftspersons not coming up empty.
In Red Desert Antonioni has shipped to us a true miracle of historical sensibility. In doing so he has lighted many arresting fires in subsequent film work. (As an example, Denis Côté’s All She Wants begins with the protagonist, Coralie, staring at the worn textures of a barn. The network of its lines chord with her black mane seen, as so often in Côté’s works—and so often with Giuliana—from behind and in close-up.) Antonioni fixes upon the motif of an uncanny physical presence to convey a crucial and subtle relationship between a specific consciousness and the emissions of a mysterious vastness. In the opening shots, golden flames spring from a processing tower into a blue sky, with explosive menace. At the same time, police in heavy military attire swarm about, lending the aura of a battleground to this social scene. But also at that commencement the war zone is touched by the silky, candid welcoming of the siren song. The massive tapering off of his subsequent output is painful to behold, notwithstanding his being fraught with daunting health problems. On the other hand, its dissolution serves to confirm how massive is the problematic of power he so unforgettably embraced.