Red Desert – review

Antonioni's 1964 film depicts a familiar landscape.

Some people have suggested that mental illness is a kind of adaptation to the sort of circumstances that will arise in the future. As we move towards a more and more psychotic landscape, the psychotic traits are signs of a kind of Darwinian adaptation. (J G Ballard, BBC Radio, 1998)

Aesthetic analyst of the bourgeoisie, which he geometrically framed with neither absolving nor condemning tones, Michelangelo Antonioni captured the moral degradation and emotional apathy of the "affluent society" like no other. Red Desert (1964), his first film in colour, retrieves a thematic intuition dating back to La Signora Senza Camelie (1953) and Le Amiche (1955) and examines it under the artificial light of industrialisation. Women appear as the first "victims" of the anthropological mutations brought on by progress; dissatisfaction and neurosis as its most recurring symptoms. Red Desert orbits around Giuliana (Monica Vitti), a woman trapped in an altering environment searching aimlessly for a place, function and role. Oppressed by the manufactured ambience, Giuliana gasps for air as her lungs are filled with the poisonous gases from the chimneys that varnish the sky.

The film pans over a lunar landscape where sentimental immobility clashes against the soulless dynamism of technological advancement. Antonioni, though, does not denounce the injustices of industrialisation; he merely registers the inability to adapt to it, which in Giuliana’s case results in mental disturbances.

The connective texture of the film decelerates and dilates, the camera dwelling more on objects than on the people who are unable to communicate with their surroundings. Long shots depict the monumental austerity of manufacturing plants, while the traditional landscape (the old city centre) is glimpsed via fleeting details, as if the camera were chasing its vanishing remnants.

Before the "swinging" blackmail of appearances (un)seen in Blow-Up (1966), the Red Desert of affective economy made colour the primary source of communication, way more eloquent than dialogue. Words are impotent; their ability to articulate an affirmative critique is deafened by the roar of progress. The narrative is entirely entrusted to the techno-expressive apparatus of the film – form does not contain substance; on the contrary, it incarnates it. Giuliana’s world – better still, her detachment from it – is mediated in chromatic terms and subjective deformations are rendered through the set design (even the vegetation was painted before filming). Her claustrophobic wandering through the vast and barren lands of a changing society seems condemned to eternal circularity.

Today, this Red Desert feels like a very familiar place.

A newly restored print of "Red Desert" opens at BFI Southbank on 27 July.

Monica Vitti and Richard Harris in Red Desert. Photograph: Getty Images
Photo: Getty
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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear