Combustible Celluloid
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With: Monica Vitti, Richard Harris, Carlo Chionetti, Xenia Valderi, Rita Renoir, Lili Rheims, Aldo Grotti, Valerio Bartoleschi, Emanuela Paola Carboni
Written by: Michelangelo Antonioni, Tonino Guerra
Directed by: Michelangelo Antonioni
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Language: Italian, with English subtitles
Running Time: 117
Date: 09/04/1964

Red Desert (1964)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Color Forboding

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The great Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni continues his theme of alienation and disconnect with his first color film, Red Desert, and the effect is perhaps even more astounding than in his black and white films. Now, more so than using just shapes and spaces, Antonioni now gets to play with bright colors, and lack of colors. Everyone agrees that, in this regard, the film is a masterpiece, but the film once had -- and perhaps still has -- many detractors, arguing that Antonioni's musings don't amount to much.

The main thrust of the movie involves Giuliana (the beautiful Antonioni muse Monica Vitti). We can infer, over the course of several scenes, that she has just been released from the hospital after a suicide attempt (or a nervous breakdown?). She visits her husband Ugo (Carlo Chionetti) at his job, running a factory. There, she meets the traveling businessman Zeller (Richard Harris), and almost instantly makes a connection with him; it's not so much that she's drawn to him, but rather that she instantly resigns herself to the fact that she will probably strike up an affair with him. It's a fascinatingly passive moment. She's out of touch from everything, especially given her bright clothes and red hair in the otherwise grim environment.

In one long scene, Ugo, Giuliana, Zeller, and others are exploring a shack, situated near the factory. The various couples play at having an "orgy," though nothing actually happens. Outside there are ominous sounds in the fog. At home, Giuliana's son suddenly becomes ill, unable to walk, and she tells him a story that becomes the movie's only bright spot; although there are spots of red among the gray, Antonioni indicates that it's not exactly a hopeful or passionate color.

Overall, Red Desert is a simple, yet overwhelming visual poem, cruel and bleak, but with breathtaking moments. I saw this masterpiece on the new Criterion Blu-Ray, which also comes with a scholarly commentary track, interviews, two short documentaries by Antonioni, dailies, and a trailer. The liner notes booklet comes with an essay by Mark Le Fanu, and an interview with Antonioni conducted by Jean-Luc Godard.

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