Film Flashback: Red Desert


Jeoffrey Pucci

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What we encounter in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert (1964) is the most paradoxical reading of modernity offered yet, which presents us with a final conclusion to his previous trilogy of films (L’Avventura, La Notte and L’Eclisse). Antonioni assures our most basic relationships with an industrialized and modern conception of Western Civilization; we are swept across the rise of heavy industry, observe an increase in existential alienation in social relations, and experience the development of ecological problems. We know this. The uncanny and yet even distinctly modernized form of social society is what we are now. This is familiar to what we experience when we imagine ourselves traveling from the rural country into the urban center: the slow reduction of natural forms, the injection of more and more geometrically consigned shapes, the uncannily feeling of parking our car on a ubiquitous street, and the sense of anxiety we feel for being “away” from our “world” for too long, perhaps missing key or essential developments there while we were away. This momentary injection back into modernity’s preconditioned modeling is experienced in only its purest emotional form: despair. However, this is how we experience modernity; for all of its developments, it is the landscape we call home. And thus, we are brought to Antonioni’s most mature theme, which we only were able to catch glimpses of in his previous trilogy: one should not simply observe modernity, nor should one try to apply old traditions or ideas to modernity, but rather, one must adapt to modernity.

Therefore, let us begin by saying there remains two distinct ways of interpreting Antonioni’s Red Desert. The first is to follow the director’s rather symmetrical structural analysis, drawing one into a classist depiction of the aesthetically alienating and socially subversive sub-structure of the 20th century bourgeois. The landscapes, sceneries and omnipresent sounds of machinery dominate what we perceive; each frame of this film bears the distinct mark of industrialization. In a certain sense, this film can be viewed as a mature and sublime reflection of the unimaginable progression of heavy industry into all latitudes and altitudes of society. The late industrial settings posses all the features one would expect: workers protesting, ubiquitous and imposing smoke stacks, military guards escorting wealth prospectors, a starving woman and a small, young looking boy. It is no accident that cinematic commentaries on this era of heavy industrialization are so keen on the sense of despair, isolation and alienation; however, the type of despair that confronts us in Red Desert is not the same which was found in Antonioni’s previous trilogy of films.

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Therefore, let us consider a much more radical and cynical way of understanding the industrial decay and disintegration of social structures occurring through this maelstrom of muted and flattened horizons. What we are confronted with in Red Desert is a very subtle and yet intelligible sense of despair that is immediately evident when we encounter the familiar character of Giuliana, played by Monica Vitti. We observe Vitti’s character only resisting the introduction of mechanized reality into her psychical landscape, without making any attempt at accepting it. A sense of despair emerges in the simplest of scenes, starting at the very beginning of the film: Giuliana stumbles through gray mud in her red heels; she doesn’t know where the closest convenience store is and must beg for food from a striking worker; the noise of the factory makes conversation with her husband impossible when she encounters him. 

In modernity, the bourgeois, which Giuliana embodies, functions as a paradoxical threshold. We understand them as either a backward glance of recognition towards, as De Tocqueville says, an Ancien Régime, an inherited or thrown historical background, or as a spontaneous assembly of new possibilities; in a certain sense, either as an affirmation of older traditions or a creative gesture towards new ones. In Antonioni’s previous films, we opted to perceive the bourgeois as perplexed and troubled beings, stale with the ideas of their most ancient aristocratic heritage, only to be understood as fundamentally divided – unhappy, and incomplete – as the very epitome of existentially alienated. This method was helpful in unpacking the narrative arcs of Antonioni’s L’Avventura and La Notte. However, Red Desert is not so easily decoded. 

At the very beginning of the film, Vitti’s character confesses to having been in a car accident, which left her in the hospital for over a month. She claims it was a simple accident, one which required a rather long stay in the hospital. Then, we learn of a recurring dream; she lies in bed, only to realize the bed is moving, moving because it is resting atop quicksand. Vitti explains that the bed sinks deeper and deeper into this pit. The longer we observe Vitti over the course of the film, the more we become aware of her emotional and psychical distance from her environment. She has bought a shop; it is unfinished, empty and half painted in shades of gray, blue and silver; a telephone that rests on the floor; she hopes to transform the space into a ceramics shop, despite possessing absolutely no knowledge of ceramics. In this light, the narrative development is similar to Antonioni’s other classist stories, i.e., the intelligentsia have no real actual knowledge of how to be happy, they think the accumulation of objects of great value will produce happiness. However, the extent to which Vitti’s character is alienated from her reality is unsettling, which plunges us into a deeply psychotic landscape uncommon to the previous narrations.

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In Sickness unto Death, Soren Kierkegaard introduces a notion of despair that is similar to the general sense of consciousness found in Vitti’s character: “On the contrary, the torment of despair is precisely this: not to be able to die. So it has much more in common with the situation of the moribund when he lies and struggles with death, and cannot die (Kierkegaard,341). The Monica Vitti and her possession over despair takes a new form, as Kierkegaard puts it, declaring despair, despair over oneself — a desire to be someone else, somewhere else. 

The invocation of trauma, mental distress, and psychical dissolution are common themes in the 20th century. What is of crucial importance in this film though, is not that Vitti’s character is a reciprocal for trauma, but rather, a second and more striking feature of this film, is the closely linked relationship between modernity and trauma: the trauma of not rendering the essential elements of modernity as they really are, i.e., the noise, the alienation, the striking workers, the dead ponds, the indifferent sexual encounters. The first thing that strikes us is the complete collapse of social reality as a consequence of the “golden rules of efficiency” and of capital expansion. Like the lost characters of Antonioni’s previous films, modernity stretches and rearranges all social orders quickly and efficiently. However, Vitti’s character in this film is somehow resistant to these changes; it is as if the character, and we as the observer, somehow see the rapid changes and developments occurring before us and can somehow reject it, negate it. In Antonioni’s universe, this “no” is hard to locate in reality. The environment, the social engagements, the disillusionment of familiar structures all seems to be status-quo. The psychical space of Vitti though, is here phenomenologically depicted as entirely removed or separate from all ever-changing world.

In a certain sense, Antonioni’s depiction of Vitti’s character offers a powerful argument for the re-definition of Marx’s idea of ideology, the paradigm of modern socialism where, to quote Marx directly from The German Ideology, “in history up to the present it is certainly an empirical fact that separate individuals have, with the broadening of their activities into world-historical activity, become more and more enslaved under a power alien to them (a pressure which they have conceived of as a dirty trick on the part of the so-called universal spirit, etc.), a power which has become more and more enormous and, in the last instance, turns out to be the world market” (Concerning the Production of Consciousness, The German Ideology). For Antonioni’s film, the possession of ideology is what torments Vitti’s character, whereas Vitti’s lover, Corrado (played by Richard Harris) is portrayed as the antithesis of herself; adaptable and completely at home within the landscape he is thrown within: As one who possesses the correct ideology. Approximately half way through the film, Vitti asks Harris’s character what he is bringing with him to South America. He responds, somewhat surprised, “Nothing, a bag or two.” At this moment, the film encounters its last and most critical point of inflection: Vitti explains that she would have to take everything if she were in his place. This is the clearest example of her inability to adapt to her environment. But what is more troubling is how damning her attachment to her misconfigured ideological perspective is. For Antonioni, the perplexing injunction of Vitti’s unhappiness is how she fully resists the re-colonization of her psyche by a new symbolic order, be it one of a consumer, or a nationalist, or a socialist. Vitti’s character, along with our perspective, is bombarded with the loud noises of factory work, shipping horns, and car horns, but never seems to attempt to conjoin itself within the landscape. We are struck again and again by the utter incomprehensibility of modernity – Vitti declares that she is “afraid of factories, colors, smoke, people”, in sum everything.

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As the world changes, Vitti resists it and is thus forced into an all-too-familiar traumatic scene of despair for not accepting or affirming the world one is within: that is to say, following Kierkegaard again, “[i]n despair at not willing to be oneself; or still lower, in despair at not willing to be a self; or lowest of all, in despair at willing to be another than himself… Think of a self (and next to God there is nothing so eternal as a self), and then that this self gets the notion of asking whether it might not let itself become or be made into another than itself. And yet such a despairer, whose only wish is this most crazy of all transformations, loves to think that this change might be accomplished as easily as changing a coat” (Kierkegaard,353). In our case though, there is no coat waiting for Vitti to change into.

We encounter this sense of despair in the all moments of the film. It transgresses the separation between frames, encounters with the modern features, the social engagements. Vitti’s relationship to her inability to conjoin and access the world she lives-in stands for the radical message underpinning Antonioni’s message in this film: the reversal of rejecting modernity into the real acceptance of modernity. It occurs when we enter into the space between Vitti and the modern texture of reality.