Red Desert (The Criterion Collection) (DVD)


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Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1960s panoramas of contemporary alienation were decade-defining artistic events, and RED DESERT, his first color film, remains one of his greatest. This provocative look at the spiritual desolation of the technological age–about a disaffected woman, brilliantly portrayed by Antonioni muse Monica Vitti (L’avventura), wandering through a bleak industrial landscape beset by power plants and environmental toxins, and tentatively flirting with her husband’s coworker, played by Richard Harris (This Sporting Life)–continues to exert force over viewers. With one startling, painterly composition after another–of abandoned fishing cottages, electrical towers, overwhelming docked ships–RED DESERT creates a nearly apocalyptic image of its time, and confirms Antonioni as cinema’s preeminent poet of the modern age.

 

    • New, restored high-definition digital transfer
    • Audio commentary by Italian film scholar David Forgacs
    • Archival video interviews with Michelangelo Antonioni and actress Monica Vitti
    • Outtakes from the film’s production
    • Original theatrical trailer
    • PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by film historian Mark Le Fanu
    • An interview with Antonioni by Jean-Luc Godard
    • A reprinted essay by Antonioni on his use of color

Plot

In Ravenna, Italy, Giuliana (Monica Vitti) is walking with her young son, Valerio, towards the petrochemical plant managed by her husband, Ugo. Passing workers who are on strike, Giuliana nervously and impulsively purchases a half-eaten sandwich from one of the workers. They are surrounded by strange industrial structures and debris that create inhuman images and sounds. Inside the plant, Ugo (Carlo Chionetti) is talking with a visiting business associate, Corrado Zeller (Richard Harris), who is looking to recruit workers for an industrial operation in Patagonia, Argentina. Ugo and Corrado converse comfortably in the noisy factory. Ugo tells Corrado that his wife, Giuliana, had a recent auto accident, and though she was physically unhurt, she has not been right mentally. That night in their apartment, Giuliana becomes highly agitated and fearful over a dream she had about sinking in quicksand. Ugo is unable to calm her or understand what she’s experiencing.

Attracted to Giuliana, Corrado visits her at an empty shop she’s planning to open and talks about his life and the restless nature of his existence. She accompanies him to Ferrara on one of his worker recruitment drives, and she indirectly reveals details about her mental state. She tells him that when she was in the hospital, she met a young woman patient who was advised by her doctors to find someone or something to love—a husband, a son, a job, even a dog. She speaks of the young woman feeling like there was “no ground beneath her, like she was sliding down a slope, sinking, always on the verge of drowning.” They travel to a radio observatory in Medicina, where Corrado hopes to recruit a top worker. Surrounded by cold industrial architecture, Giuliana seems lost in her loneliness and isolation.

The following weekend, Giuliana, Ugo, and Corrado are walking beside a polluted estuary where they meet up with another couple, Max and Linda, and together they drive to a small riverside shack at Porto Corsini where they meet Emilia. They spend time in the shack engaged in trivial small talk filled with jokes, role-playing, and sexual innuendo. Giuliana seems to find temporary solace in these mindless distractions. A mysterious ship docks directly outside their shack, and as she looks out to the open sea, Giuliana confides to Corrado, “I can’t look at the sea for long or I lose interest in what’s happening on land.” During their conversations, Corrado and Giuliana have grown closer, and he shows interest and sympathy for her. Like Giuliana, Corrado is also alienated, but he is better adapted to and accepting of his environment, telling her, “You wonder what to look at; I wonder how to live.” When a doctor arrives to board the ship, Giuliana, seeing that the ship is now quarantined due to an infectious disease, rushes off in a state of panic. Her unwillingness to stay, or to return to the shack to retrieve the purse she left behind, underscores her state of alienation from the others.

Sometime later, Ugo leaves on a business trip, and Giuliana spends more time with Corrado, revealing more about her anxieties. One day she discovers that her son has apparently become suddenly paralyzed from the waist down. Fearing he has contracted polio, Giuliana tries to comfort her son with a story about a young girl who lives on an island and swims off a beach at an isolated cove. The girl is at home with her surroundings, but after a mysterious sailing ship approaches offshore, all the rocks of the cove seem to come alive and sing to her in one voice. Soon after, Giuliana discovers to her shock that Valerio was only pretending to be paralyzed. Unable to imagine why her son would do such a cruel thing, Guiliana’s sense of loneliness and isolation returns.

Desperate to end her inner turmoil, Giuliana goes to Corrado’s apartment where he tries to force his affections on her. Initially resisting Corrado’s advances, Giuliana eventually accepts his affections, and the two make love in his bed. The intimacy, however, does little to relieve Giuliana’s sense of isolation. The next day, a distraught Giuliana leaves Corrado and wanders to a dockside ship where she meets a foreign sailor and tries to communicate her feelings to him, but he cannot understand her words. Acknowledging the reality of her isolation, she says, “We are all separate.” At that point, Giuliana seems to be completely alone and at her lowest state.

Sometime later, Giuliana is again walking with her son near her husband’s plant. Valerio notices a nearby smokestack emitting poisonous yellow smoke and wonders if birds are being killed by the toxic emissions. Giuliana tells him that the birds have learned not to fly near the poisonous yellow smoke.

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