“One mystery is okay, but two is too many”. Sometimes you hear or read something in a movie that completely crystallises a character and their journey. This quote comes from a story that Giuliana (Monica Vitti) tells her son as he pretends to have become recently paralysed. In the story she tells of a girl on an isolated cove, which is an interesting parallel to Guiliana’s own isolation from the rest of the world. She uses this story as a way to explain (to the best of her abilities) how she has been feeling to her young son – only to find this was a cruel trick he has played on her which only deepens her feelings of isolation. It is this feeling of crippling isolation/detachment which permeates the brutal industrial landscapes of Il Deserto Rosso.
By setting his first colour film in an industrial complex Michelangelo Antonioni must have had an uphill climb in getting that ‘painted on canvas’ look he was trying to achieve. I can only imagine how much easier this would have been if he had chosen to shoot Sicily in colour for L’Avventura.
Still when you watch this you cannot fault Antonioni for what he tried to achieve. The greyness of the surroundings truly helps to emphasise the accents of red, blue and yellow. In the final shot it is the vivid yellow of the smoke that truly hits you thanks to the grim surroundings. He tried to make industry beautiful… and I would not agree with that. However, he somehow used it as a contrast to make the commonplace (and sometimes even the toxic) seem beautiful, which is a big win there.
Another departure from Antonioni is the sound design of the film – made up of industrial sounds by a foley artist and electronic noises. The way that they mix (usually when Guiliana is approaching her breaking point) is unsettling. It is hard to describe why it works so well (mainly because my vocabulary caps out with the word discordant), but this is something you will have to watch and see for yourself.
It all adds up to an interesting film about a woman finding it hard to cope with life. She tries to find meaning in friends, her son and a sexual affair with her husbands co-worker… but everything just ends up making her feel useless, unneeded and alone. It’s a miracle of acting from Monica Vitti that this character is not insufferable.
As someone who has been through an awful period of depression there is a lot of her actions that I could relate to (not the affair… love you hub) and unlike other actors she never overdoes it. Sure there are outbursts, as there are bound to be, but the entire performance is grounded in reality.
Like with a lot of cinema from the continent this is more a slice of life film as no real conclusion is reached. She is still emotionally isolated and her husband is likely off to Patagonia for a year leaving her behind with her young (arsehole) son. Will she survive? Other than a clue from an interaction with her son about how birds learn to avoid the toxic smoke of the factories we don’t know. I hope that the final scene is some sort of hopeful metaphor.