Michelangelo Antonioni's movies hypnotize me. I don't always know what's going on in them, but he creates a vibe of alienation like no other director. His 1962 drama L'Eclisse enthralled me when I saw it 25 years ago, back in college, despite nothing much happening. Antonioni established a mood, framed his shots, and then set loose the alluring Monica Vitti to pout, and yawn, and yearn. It's movie magic: the perfect combination of director and muse, neither of whom would be as good without the other. A few years later, when I watched L'Avventura, his first movie with Vitti, it was more of the same, but this time with an edge of mystery that was the perfect extension to Antonioni's brooding style. the last of Antonioni's four major movies in row with Vitti is Red Desert (Il deserto rosso), which was also the director's first movie in color. Those two factors alone — Vitti and Carlo Di Palma's stunning cinematography — make Red Desert two solid hours of must-see Antonioni-brand alienation, even though it's not as enrapturing as some of his previous movies, and his theme seems to have gotten muddled between his intent and execution.
Vitti stars as Giuliana, a woman suffering from post-traumatic stress following a car accident that left her physically unharmed, but emotionally troubled. Out of sync with her aloof husband (Carlo Chionetti), who is insensitive to her recent shift in moods, she feels disconnected from everything in her life, including these new, troubling mental issues. Her husband's colleague, Corrado (Richard Harris), takes an interest in her and shares his own less-dramatic feelings of isolation as the two of them visit a series engineering sites.
It seems as if Antonioni is alleging an erosion of human relationships and individual agency in the post-industrial world, but the director has claimed that his intent was just the opposite: "...to translate the poetry of the world, in which even factories can be beautiful.... It is a rich world, alive and serviceable.... the neurosis I sought to describe in Red Desert is above all a matter of adjusting." While the industrial sets and locations are impressively photographed, there's no human narrative that expresses his theme; Giuliana seems just as adrift at the end of the movie as she was at the beginning, and the interludes that occur on her way from point A to point A are intriguing, but don't seem to affect her substantially. If there is adjusting, by either Giuliana or Corrado, it happens before or after the film ends; everyone is static. It was irresistible for me to compare Red Desert to the much later Todd Haynes masterpiece Safe, which seems to have taken Red Desert's widely acknowledged theme and zeroed in on it with exacting focus. Julianne Moore stars in Safe as a housewife who is convinced that she's becoming allergic to the complicated atmosphere of modern life. Beyond their riveting performances by lovely redheads, both Red Desert and Safe are about women struck with a dislocating malaise that is associated with progress and technology. the big difference between the two movies is that Safe is narratively compelling from beginning to end, with a fantastic performance by Moore that is among her very best. Vitti is marvelous to watch in Red Desert, but the drifting murkiness of the movie's ideas doesn't give her an arc to explore. With the exception of a scene in which Giuliana and some of her husband's work friends get randy together in a seaside shack, she alternates only between three or four pensive or distraught looks.
Vitti is in Red Desert, ultimately, just the alluring centerpiece in a series of stunning shots that are breathtaking to behold. the colors in Red Desert are just wonderful, and Antonioni is a master at arranging frames. There are few movies that look this good, and that make their lead actress look this good. That's not nothing, but it's also not as much as Antonioni's best movies have to offer.