Blu-ray Review: Red Desert (Criterion Collection)

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I’ve liked what little from Michaelangelo Antonioni I’ve seen up to this point, which includes L’avventura, Il Grido, La notte and Blowup. So it was with some excitement I began watching his ninth feature film and first color film, Red Desert on Blu-ray from Criterion. Unfortunately, this one didn’t move or interest me nearly as much as those previous four movies did.

Red Desert is highly abstract. It’s more about mood and atmosphere, and interested in putting forth ideas more than telling a story. As such, I didn’t feel as if it “let me in.” Reading through the 1964 interview with Antonioni conducted by Jean-Luc Godard included in Criterion’s impressive 42-page booklet the two speak at length about the film and Antonioni reveals what I feel is an important aspect in his first answer comparing Red Desert to his previous films saying: “At one time, I was interested in the relationships of characters to one another. Now, instead, the main character must confront her social environment…”

In Red Desert, the “main character” Antonioni speaks of is Giuliana, played by Monica Vitti (L,avventura, L’eclisse). Giuliana’s confrontation with the growing industrial environment around her becomes a catalyst for neurosis, a condition that guides the film as she must deal with her environment and the relationships that surround her. However, it won’t be as easy as not only the bleak landscape is working against her, but those around her have conformed to the point they are unable to recognize what’s really causing Giuliana discomfort.

Treated as an object of desire by both her husband and Corrado, a visiting mining engineer Corrado played by the late Richard Harris, Giuliana is unable to properly explain what she is feeling. Or, as in her husband’s case, he’s blind to her feelings. The men in Giuliana’s life recognize her personal struggle with neurosis, but their understanding and ability to operate inside the growing industrial world doesn’t allow them to actually relate to Giuliana’s struggles. Their way of helping her deal is through displays of affection and sex, thus compounding her conflict as they appear to be closed off to her just as much as the industrialized world. As she says, she feels as if she’s “drowning” beneath it all, “sliding down a slope,” with nothing to hang on to. This, to me, is far more interesting than an exploration of emotion through colors, but that is obviously where Antonioni intends to take us.

Admittedly, Criterion’s Blu-ray particularly excels in portraying Antonioni’s blurred industrial landscape as he uses Red Desert to play with colors and emotions. White bleeding into grey plumes of smoke and fog create a stifling and claustrophobic environment as the outside world is swallowed by the rise of industrialization. All that’s left is the machine and the humans living inside it are made to look tiny. Even more so as giant barges seemingly make their way through tree-lined forests as industry metaphorically plows its way through nature.

Splashes of color here and there stand out, though I’d be lying if I said I’d had such alarming reactions as film scholar David Forgacs exudes in his effusive yet dry audio commentary, which is informative but also a bit of a bore. Especially if you’ve watched the special features and read the essays as a lot of what Forgacs says seems to merely elaborate on details already included elsewhere on this disc.

Other supplementary material includes a 13-minute interview with Antonioni from 1964, a 1990 interview with Vitti, nearly 30 minutes of uncut dailies without audio and two Antonioni short films; Gente del Po and N.U.. These supplements are included as footnotes to the film, which, in my opinion, is something to be studied rather than looked at for entertainment value. A lot of what Forgacs discusses in his audio commentary is interesting, but takes film study to a whole new level and I need to be personally engaged with a film more than I was with Red Desert to ever get so involved.

I enjoy discussing process and reason when looking at film as an artform, but abstract films don’t interest me as much if they aren’t necessarily dependent on a story. Red Desert is a film I would reserve for film scholars and is a film I’m happy I’ve seen for future reference, but I don’t expect I’ll be returning to it often.

Criterion has done an exemplary job in its presentation and fans of this film will be bowled over by this Blu-ray. Film grain is kept intact and the artistry of Antonioni is well-preserved, which is particularly important in this case as the artistry is certainly on display.

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