“The present is always wanting, which makes it ugly, abhorrent and unendurable. The present is obsolete. The moment it lands in the present, the coveted future is poisoned by the toxic effluvia of the wasted past.” – Zygmunt Bauman
“Red Desert” begins with an out of focus shot of an Industrial estate. We’re in a barren and impersonal landscape, the earth poisonous, the sky toxic, factory fumes snaking their way up into the air. A man complains that his food tastes of petroleum. Director Michelangelo Antonioni calls this the “malaise of progress”.
A woman and child then appear. Her name is Giuliana (Monica Vitti) and she is the wife of a factory worker. As the film progresses, it becomes increasingly apparent that Giuliana is stuck in what Jean Paul Sartre called a state of “existential nausea”. Having sustained minor injuries in a car crash, she becomes hypersensitive, deeply attuned to the world around her. She begins to feel the suffocating pain of existence, an invisible weight crushing her tired body.
Of course such sensitivity inexorably leads to alienation. Giuliana attempts to isolate and shield herself, cutting himself off from all stimulus. Later she attempts suicide, but is unsuccessful. She is condemned to go on living.
Antonioni’s landscapes convey Giulian’s mental anguish, every object a threatening presence in her fragile psyche. He has her sit next to a tilted cart to convey her lack of balance, has her wear a tight coat and scarf to convey how bottled up and isolated she is, uses out of focus shots to emphasise that Giuliana is “out of sync” with everyone else, alternates between sound and silence to differentiate between Giuliana’s comfort and pain, has her stand against white walls, and has her paint her shop in “cool colours” to convey her attempts at “separating” herself from the “poison”. And as always with Antonioni, how characters enter certain spaces, what these spaces are, and how they act and react within these spaces are essential to the story.
Unsurprisingly, those around Giulietta can’t relate to her troubles. Extended set pieces (like a party and an aborted group sex act) highlight that man shields himself from painful contemplation largely by indulging in simple pleasures, numbing himself with financial conquests and biochemical stimulus. Giulietta sees people as machines chasing nothing.
But Giulietta is different. She feels things that others ignore. The only one who empathises with her pain is her friend Zeller (Richard Harris), another wounded existentialist. Typical of Antonioni’s male characters, Zeller is rootless, travelling from place to place but never finding contentment. The two begin a subdued romance, but despite his attempts to get to the bottom of her condition, nothing changes.
But though nothing changes, everything moves invisibly. Antonioni’s use of moving cargo ships, the juxtaposition between movement and tranquillity, past and present, modernity and poverty, all work together to create a unique aesthetic. This is humanity’s post-apocalypse, not just Italy’s post-war reality, but a new world order, an illusory neo-capitalism in which there is endless producing, but the products themselves are nowhere to be seen.
The film represents the acme of modernist minimalism, but it is itself an exploration of the “trauma” of modernism. Antonioni is unconcerned about how social changes affect industrial workers and focuses instead on upwardly mobile “skilled workers” or middle managers of the “new world”. The film is typically said to be about “alienation” and “ennui”, but it’s more about the ambivalence toward economic transformation, and how this transformation destroys feeling, exploits desires, makes love impossible and creates a world of only shared pretence. The title of the film itself alludes to a lack of “eros” or “love”. Giuliana’s in a desert of red. A lack of human passion; mankind’s future waning of affect.
Antonioni then gives us a wonderful sequence which encapsulates the themes of his film. Giulietta’s son seems to have caught a strange disease. His legs don’t work and she fears that he may be paralysed. “Tell me what’s wrong!” Giulietta screams. But like Giulietta, the boy doesn’t speak. He’s unable to articulate his pain and so must suffer in silence. He’s a little boy, his pain private, his legs broken. He’s too weak to stand, too broken to walk in the world of man.
It’s a simple bedtime story that cures Giulietta’s son. She tells him of a girl who swims away and lives on a secluded island. She is happy alone, away from the world, here on this silent beach. But one day a ship visits. The girl finds the ship beautiful and mysterious. Seeing the beauty in man, the girl then begins to hear the rocks and island singing all around her. Cue reconnection; but of course the island and boat are a fantasy.
The film ends with two brilliant scenes. Giulietta, like Zeller, attempts to flee the world. She heads out to the docks and boards a ship. Like Jack Nicholson in Antonioni’s “The Passenger”, she wants to get away. It’s only in a moment of self-therapy, when she finally articulates her pain to a sailor (who doesn’t speak her language and doesn’t understand her) that she comes to some measure of, not just closure, but false connection. She then leaves the ship.
The film ends with a coda that mirrors the film’s introduction. In this scene, mother and son look on at the factory landscape. The boy asks his mother why the factory’s smoke is yellow. She tells him that the smoke is poisonous. “Why doesn’t it kill the birds?” he asks. “They’ve learnt to stay clear of the poisonous fumes,” she says. Giuliana hasn’t been cured, she’s simply learnt how to cope. And the birds? Not only have they adapted to the smoke, but they breathe it because they don’t know it’s there. The poison doesn’t register, and so they fly, blissfully unaware.