On falling out of love with "Red Desert"

Monica Vitti as Giuliana in Red Desert (dir. Michelangelo Antonioni, 1964).

I re-watched Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert (1964) last week and realized I didn’t love it anymore.  Did I ever love it?  It’s one of those movies I had read about for years before I finally saw it for the first time at the age of twenty-five, and so, as is often the case with lovers who have yet to be met, I had formed a false impression of it, one colored by my own desire.  I wanted to love Red Desert; I still want to love it.  But it now seems a pale shade of what Antonioni does so elegantly in L’Avventura and L’Eclisse, namely to use spaces and environments to explore what he called the “sickness of Eros”—the impossibility of love in the modern age.

My judgment is, or was, clouded by Red Desert’s reputation as a classic.  Antonioni’s first color film, it won the Golden Lion at the 1964 Venice Film Festival.  Peter Bondanella writes that it “may well be Antonioni’s masterpiece”; Stanley Kauffmann, who interpreted the film as the cinematic equivalent of a post-impressionist painting, called it “the best use of color I have ever seen in a film.  Kier-La Janisse, meanwhile, sees Red Desert as a key film in the canon of neurotic-woman movies.  But while I’m willing to concede that Antonioni’s use of color and location settings is superb—Monica Vitti looks great as she wanders through the fog-drenched seaport town of Ravenna, surrounded by belching smokestacks and ghostly cargo ships—it doesn’t have the emotional resonance of his three previous films. 

Maybe that’s because the trilogy of L’Avventura-La Notte-L’Eclisse, however much it may resemble Red Desert in its visual style and tone, thematizes an entirely different set of affects.  The films in the trilogy are about romantic relationships born out of desperation and volatility, relationships as sources of panic and crisis.  Red Desert, meanwhile, is about the absence of feeling.  The “problem” with Giuliana (Vitti) in Red Desert is that, having recently suffered a nervous breakdown, she can’t seem to feel anything except a vague, objectless fear.  The movie builds to a scene of sexual consummation in which she attempts (fails?) to fill her inner emptiness.

Antonioni's trilogy captures—uncannily, agonizingly—the feeling of standing poised at the edge of romantic surrender, in all of its nervous terror.  (All three films center on the making or unmaking of couples.)  If Red Desert conveys a feeling, it’s that of depression’s affective blankness.  To bear witness to Giuliana’s numbness and listlessness is to feel numb and listless oneself—a state of being that, however well conveyed it may be, doesn’t make for expressive cinema.  And so I’m left wrestling with my complicated feelings about Red Desert, much like an Antonioni character stuck in a space of uncertainty and impatience who realizes he has to walk away from someone, something, he wants to love but can’t.

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