Wednesday 3 June 2015

Il Deserto Rosso (Red Desert)

Giuliana? Gem, her!

Il Deserto Rosso (Red Desert)
Italy/France 1964
Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni
BFI Blu Ray Zone B

“There’s something terrible about reality... but I don’t know what it is.” - Il Deserto Rosso

One of my all time favourite directors, Andrei Tarkovsky, reportedly hated this movie. Much as I love Tarkovsky and his personal aesthetic, I’d have to say I’d disagree with him on this although, if I perhaps had a time machine and had spent more time living in the sixties than I actually did, I might find more sympathy to his reaction and reasoning that the director of Red Desert had abandoned the inner heart of his movie in favour of the pursuit of the visual imagery. However, a couple of things about that kind of conclusion with this film...

One... I personally treasure the visual richness of the imagery in cinema but, hey, I hold my hands up. Graphic designer by trade so... of course that element of certain kinds of cinema is going to have my sympathy, over and over again, roughly 24 times a second. Personally, I’ve always found Michelangelo Antonioni a bit hit and miss as a director, but this one definitely falls into the former camp with me.

Two... this film really isn’t about the purely visual aesthetic, at least not looking back on the movie now. Maybe it was more of an exploration of that element when it was first released but, in comparison to the cinema that came after it, and certainly from what I can see... it has a very raw, vibrant, if tragic beating heart. The beating heart of the lovely and, quite extraordinary, Monica Vitti as the main protagonist and shiny gem of this movie.

Starting off with opening credits set against completely blurry, out of focus shots of industrial buildings, the film concentrates on Giuliana (Monica Vitti) who is married to Ugo (played by Carlo Chionetti), the local power plant manager. Also thrown into the mix is Corrado Zeller, another VIP at the plant, played by Richard Harris, who is recruiting for a company expansion in a far off land.

The film continues post credits with Giuliana and her young son going out to watch the strike outside the plant... an almost siege situation with her husband and some of the workers inside going about their daily business. The industrial wasteland looks like someone’s idea of an apocalyptic vision, including a chimney spewing flame not a million miles away from the one seen in the opening sequence of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. This vision of hell is a little closer to home, though, and much less beautiful in terms of the opulence of the mise en scene.

We can tell right from the outset that Monica Vitti’s character is not quite right in the mental health department. She spies a man eating a big sandwich and buys it, half eaten, from him rather than go to the shop just down the road. She then leaves her young ‘un watching the furore of the strike while she finds a secluded spot to go eat, behind some bushes, so nobody can see her. As she eats, she contemplates, along with us, the horror of the bleak, polluted and dying landscape where she lives... slowly being destroyed by the power plant. All through the film the constant industrial noise is present on the soundtrack so, at first, it’s not too obvious but.. there’s another subtle thing that’s also going on at an audio level. I’ll get to that later on though.

The film is not about much on the surface, it has to be said... and perhaps that’s what bothered Tarkovsky about this one. When Richard Harris’s character strikes up a friendship with Giuliana, the film is really just a series of conversations taking place in interesting looking locations about...not much in general. But the film is loaded with information on a visual level and a lot of that is done in the way Vitti and Harris play their characters... especially Vitti. I hate to overuse the expression tour de force but the job she does here, conveying her wordless and constantly shifting inner dialogue at any given moment with both the expression on her face and the way her body moves is nothing short of astonishing. There’s also a correlation, almost, with the Giuliana character and the way her psyche is almost linked to the bleak landscape which, by all reports, Antonioni had painted and tinted by his crew so all the grass, trees etc have lost their colour and form a depressing neutrality (although Antonioni himself saw it as a celebration of urban landscape, if his interview with French new wave director Jean-Luc Godard is to be taken at face value).

Whatever the reasoning, the colours in the film are completely manipulated and the only one who seems to realise the horror of her environment seems to be Giuliana. There’s a scene where she seems most happiest in the movie which might be a way of demonstrating that claim I just made about the link between the environment and her inner world, I think. There is a gathering of Giuliana and her friends, her husband’s friends and Richard Harris in a small hut by a dock. Inside there is a second room with a soft, cushioned floor where they all congregate, in an almost sexual manner, and the room is a very vivid, reddish colour... in strict contrast to everything outside the shack and even the other room. So you have a red room, one of the women wearing an almost lime green outfit, everything is bright colours and this is where Monica Vitti’s character seems to be at her most happiest. The fog starts to roll in around the hut and another couple visit for a little while. When they leave, however, the camera goes with them for a moment and we are immediately plunged back into the foggy drabness with them.

Your mind feels the switch immediately as it happens. The colours have given the film a sense of tension relief and then it’s taken away again for a bit, before we return to the characters inside. But when we do go back to the red room at the start of this part of the sequence, everyone in the room is out of focus and then... bang... Monica Vitti sits up into shot and we just see the back of her head, but in pin sharp focus (made even more impressive, I’m sure, by the Blu Ray transfer here). And you can deduce the artifice and effort to get that shot because, in the very next frame, which is a reverse shot of this, there is a wall directly behind her... indicating that Antonioni must have had to shift the wall out of the way to be able to get the shot... this is all good stuff.

The action for this second part of this sequence takes place mostly in the other room, with the red room a rectangle opening in the back wall. When she sees that a ship which has rolled in directly outside the window has had a flag raised as a warning sign of infectious disease, Giuliana is driven crazy by this and it’s interesting that when this happens she is not in the vibrant colours of the previous room anymore. Antonioni further enhances this drain of colour linked with mental despair by cutting to an outside shot of this at one point, where we just see Giuliana’s head looking out the window in long shot and framed by the grime of the outside world. This is another tactic he employs throughout the film at certain points... dislocating Monica Vitti in space within a larger shot using verticals or angles... so she is somewhat compartmentalised and in isolation from anyone else in a shot. It’s a very visual way, it seems to me, of highlighting the fact that this poor and confused individual is feeling like a prisoner in the reality she finds around her... all interesting stuff.

Another example of the direct use of colour to comment on the mental state of the character would be the sequences involving her son, who she believes to be very ill at this point. When she starts telling him a story, it is manifested in the film as a voice over narrative on a set of images and it becomes clear pretty quickly that she is telling him of an incident in her early life. The telling thing is, though, she is happy in this sequence and it’s the only sequence in the film, from what I can see, that is shot with bright, happy colours against all the neutrality of the majority of the running time. One of the things she says here is this... “She loved that place. Nature had such beautiful colours and there was no noise.” Which I think cements pretty much, at least for me, the way Antonioni was trying to use colour (and this was the first film shot by him in colour) to invoke the contrast between Giuliana’s mood swings in relation to everything else in the picture.

The noise she mentions could easily mean the almost constant industrial noise of her immediate environment  but, also, it could be referring to the thing that Antonioini, through his composer Vittorio Gelmetti, who does the electronic scoring in this film (as opposed to the other composer on the film, Tonino Cervi), does with the film’s minimal soundtrack at various key points. There is a weird, electronic jumble of sounds going on at various moments and, after a while into the movie, the penny finally drops and the audience can slowly start to piece together that these particular parts of the sound design are an audio representation of what’s going on with Monica Vitti’s character. This is made abundantly clear in a scene opposite Richard Harris towards the end of the movie when she is staring into space mid conversation and listening to the sounds and then, when Harris say something and she immediately snaps her head around to ask him a question, the sound disappears again on the soundtrack... it immediately returns after she has made the effort of interacting and she slips back into a more lethargic state again. So... a pretty cool audio device to support the way Antonioni uses colour in this film, I think.

Another thing Vitti herself does to give a certain edge to her character... and I’m sure this was probably quite deliberate direction to her but that does nothing to undercut her brilliant performance here... is to not always move or react in the way you might expect her to on a physical level. At one point in the film, her husband tries to comfort her in the night but she never seems sure of whether she’s moving in the same direction as him at any given moment. The way they slowly collide or resist each other in their physical space reminded me a lot of the choreography of action and reaction motion performed by people during certain scenes in Hal Hartley’s early movies such as Ambition, Theory Of Achievement and The Unbelievable Truth. The later, post shack scene where Giuliana is staring at her friends after she had fled and everyone says nothing, just standing there with the fog rolling in, before she starts moving in a dislocated fashion away from them, is another sequence where Antonioni, through Vitti, seems to be employing the same tactics to further enhance the main protagonist’s mental displacement and lack of commonality with her friends.

Antonioni also seems to take delight, in this film, in having big ships moving into the shots from unexpected places, almost surreptitiously at first. I’m not sure if this is supposed to be a particular comment about Giuliana (maybe a symbol of escape or freedom, perhaps?) or, in fact, a fetishistic visual obsession of the director in this movie but, it is kind of interesting to see how often he does it. The most spectacular version of this comes when Monica Vitti is standing in a forest and looking to another part of the forest. Suddenly a massive ship cuts through the trees, with a car going in the opposite direction. I wasn’t sure if this is a surreal flight of fancy on the part of the director or something which we were supposed to read as it is... a ship coming into port with a car going past it, just on the other side of the forest, with another forest behind it... it looks like it’s been taken in such a way that the camera is able to completely disregard the sense of perspective within the shot and at one point you wonder if Vitti’s character is actually seeing it or whether it’s a product of her slightly off kilter mind.

What I do know is the lengths that Antonioni has gone to in making this film are almost as extraordinary as Monica Vitti’s stand out performance... possibly at the risk of alienating some of his key players. Although I didn’t notice anything unusual about the flow of the movie, Richard Harris reportedly walked off the set for good because he didn’t get on with Antonioni’s working technique and things came to a head when the director wanted him to walk diagonally across a room without telling him why. Some reports say he punched Antonioni on the nose for his trouble at some point too. Monica Vitti made four films back to back with Antonioni but this was her last one with him for many a decade or two... I don’t know why but maybe I’m reading between the lines too much in even mentioning it. I do know that Harris went out of his way to warn David Hemmings about the director when Hemmings worked on Blow Up with him so... Antonioni must have got on a lot of people’s nerves is my guess. I suspect this film may be to Antonioni what Red Beard was to Akira Kurosawa.

Whatever the truth behind all this is though... I can conclude that this is a really cool film. Probably one of the more accessible by the director, at least of the few I’ve seen so far, and certainly something I would recommend to all lovers of good cinematic art, if I’m completely honest. A film that won’t go away in your mind very quickly and, love it or hate it, will probably still be haunting your thoughts a week or more after. BFI’s new blu ray has a few extras but is definitely worth having for the lovely transfer. Very glad I finally invested in this one and, frankly, it’s worth it just for Monica Vitti’s truly startling performance, which captures a person still in shock from an accident in her past but who could equally be the only sane, sensitive one in the desolate milieu in which she finds herself. A true star and, to paraphrase the tag line of another movie she was in... nothing can phase, Modesty Blaise.

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