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.