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Red Desert (Antonioni, 1964)

Michelangelo Antonioni's L'Eclisse ended on a strangely apocalyptic note, with its almost futuristic environment having consumed the protagonists during its final few minutes, free of any trace of humanity. In that sense, Red Desert represents a vision of the post-apocalypse. The opening images frame the characters against the cold, unfeeling architecture of a factory, and within a few minutes, the smoke being billowed out from one of factory's many orifices eventually covers the bulk of the screen, going from a point of concern to negative space. Modern technology and industrialization have taken over - how do we live now? Antonioni apparently was not a technophobe or luddite, and the framing of the question here is key. His concern is not whether modernity has a positive or negative effect, but how we go about navigating it. In that sense, it's appropriate that it trades the finality of L'Eclisse for a certain unresolved feeling. The closing images here have the effect of a shrug, where acceptance of this world is the best possible outcome, emotionally speaking.

This was Antonioni's first film in colour, but the result is nowhere near as boisterous as that might suggest, at least if most other directors were involved. Much of the film plays almost in monochrome, resulting in an environment that perhaps has a certain beauty if you look at it in the right way (most evident in a scene where the heroine is framed against what looks at first to be floral arrangement, but when the camera changes focus turns out to be an arrangement of different-coloured barrels), but not one which is welcoming or warm. Certainly his attention to architecture and design plays a role here; consider two shots where the camera observes mechanical children's toys, or another of an array of glass globes. One of the more striking uses of colour comes at the midpoint, when a ship is seen raising a yellow flag indicating diseased onboard. The yellow is hardly a different shade from the other colours in the frame, suggesting that a level of disease is perhaps normal and not limited to the ship's passengers. Yellow is seen again in the poisonous smoke emitted by the factories, one of the film's closing images, suggesting that perhaps this level of pollution and rot is here to stay. The strongest, most incongruous colour here is, as the title suggests, red, which Antonioni deploys to charged, disorienting effect. And there is of course the scene involving the girl on the beach and its disarmingly lush hues, which may provide the key to the heroine's psyche.

I mentioned that Antonioni is interested in how one emotionally navigates the modern world, and this is a story of someone who does so poorly. I think the first word that comes to mind when discussing Antonioni's work is "ennui", but I don't think that really describes what's happening here. Giuliana, played by Monica Vitti, is affluent like the protagonists of his earlier movies (including ones she portrayed), but the source of her spiritual ailment is less emotional detachment than an inability to adjust to the world around her. In that sense she's quite a bit more sympathetic than Vittoria, the character Vitti played in L'Eclisse, who seemed to actively encourage her own emotional alienation and was characterized by a certain callousness. You get the sense that Giuliana is really trying, which makes it sting more when those around her seem to push her away (one notable scene has her gobble down quail eggs after being told they're an aphrodisiac and then getting brushed off by her putz of a husband when she tells him she wants to make love). I can't say I'm exactly like Giuliana (if I were, I would have better hair), but the feelings she's going through are not completely alien to me. Antonioni doesn't shape her story too distinctly into an arc, but prefers to let us bask in those same feelings, by drawing scenes out and letting his colours set the mood, rightly assuming that our emotional investment would come from Vitti's tremendously empathetic performance.

I've increasingly been thinking about the idea of spending time in movies, and this is one where I find the concept quite rewarding. The unresolved feeling I referred to earlier had left me cold when I first saw it, but is also one of the reasons I keep returning to this, perhaps because it poses something of a challenge, perhaps because I just want to wallow. With a few more viewings, will the movie's arc finally conclude? Will Monica Vitti finally find happiness? Will she not make the wrong turn when trying to drive away from the shack? Or at least buy a sandwich that someone hasn't bitten into? 'Scuse me while I pop in the disc and hit play one more time.