"Red Desert" is celebrated as Michelangelo Antonioni's first feature shot in color, and was the first of several films that launched legends about his obsessive multi-hued art direction: his crew would paint each blade of grass to make it green enough for film, long rows of houses would be streaked red for just the right effect in a single, brief establishing shot. Just as Fritz Lang used sound expressionistically rather than to replicate reality in "M," Antonioni was not bound by naturalism when designing his painterly palette.
Yet the man who painted the grass green was in no hurry to show off his brand new Technicolor dreamcoat in "Red Desert." Under the opening credits runs a series of blurry, out-of-focus images where the only hints of color look like the tinted films of the silent era. If you hadn't read the listing or aren't paying attention, you might not even know you're watching a color film for a few minutes. When the credits end, the film explodes with blast of red-orange flame venting from a smokestack in close-up. But when the scene cuts to a longer shot, it once again looks almost like an artificial tent as the rest of the frame (sky, factory) reflects only shades of gray. Indeed, "Red Desert" is one hell of a gray color film.
All of the early scenes are similarly muted as factory workers either report to work or gather for a strike (introduced early, this seems like a major plot point, but it is instantly dropped.) The next distinctive color belongs to the green coat worn by Monica Vitti as she nervously approaches the factory. But even here the brightness is only relative and it's actually rather drab in most shots. Her jacket hardly stands out like the yellow dress in "Medium Cool."
Antonioni saves some of the brightest colors for the factory elements themselves: bright red steel girders, a blue steam boiler, a sickly orange pipe. Environment is not only foregrounded as much as character in Antonioni's films, it is character and one of the primary virtues of "Red Desert" is the way that the "ugliness" of a chemical factory is rendered into something sublime. Even the factory's waste (spray painted gray to look "gray enough") has its own ethereal beauty.
Through these manufactured landscapes wanders Giuliana (Vitti), the wife of wealthy industrialist Ugo (Carlo Chionetti). Giuliana has recently suffered what was then termed a "nervous breakdown" (in her husband's dismissive description, "Her gears don't quite mesh") that may have been a result of a minor fender-bender, though the film suggests that her neurotic state is just as likely the product of this most recent industrial revolution. In Antonioni's words, progress is inevitable and not something to be feared, but certain people will not be able to adjust to it, and Giuliana appears to be one of these unfortunates. Trapped in a hysterical time loop, she does not see or appreciate the beauty that Antonioni (and, presumably, the audience) does in this brave new petrochemical world. Her only response is anxiety, every moment of every day.
Unable to connect with her husband or her young son, Giuliana latches onto her husband's colleague Corrado (Richard Harris, dubbed in Italian) who also has not integrated well with his ever changing environment. His father helped build the factory, but Corrado feels uncomfortable inheriting its burden. As Ugo notes when they look at a distant tower: "I can't see you in it."
Corrado, however, does see a kindred spirit in Giuliana though he doesn't know what to make of her constant nervous twitching and her childlike inability to focus on the present. They engage in a tentative, unsatisfying affair that doesn't provide either with the escape they both fantasize about.
Antonioni had already made Vitti (his muse and his partner) a star in his art-house smash hits "L'avventura" (1960) and "L'eclisse" (1962). He calls on her to create a more animated character in "Red Desert." In my opinion, Vitti, magnificent in those two films, isn't always convincing in her attempt to portray neurosis. She constructs her character around a series of nervous tics and twitches, and often looks like she's literally trying to hold herself together. Harris' performance (physical, since he is dubbed) has often been criticized, but I feel he holds the screen remarkably well, though it's hard to believe this handsome, cultured bloke was only one year removed from the imposing, working-class rugby player of "This Sporting Life" (1963).
The narrative can be taken at face value as the story of a woman suffering from mental illness or trauma, and/or as an expression of modern alienation (the buzzword most associated with Antonioni for the past 50 years). It can be absorbed primarily as an audiovisual experience. With its self-conscious use of color (both desaturated and vivid at times) and the careful arrangement of architectural spaces (Carlo Di Ponti's cinematography is exquisite), "Red Desert" is a motion-painting as much as a motion-picture. Science becomes science-fiction when framed the right way, and these factory landscapes feel like alien spaces, especially when paired with the electronically manipulated, theremin-esque musical score by Giovanni Fusco and Vittorio Gelmetti (the latter credited for "Electronic Music.") Savor every image and every sound. Few directors have created audiovisual landscapes as lush as Antonioni's.
The film is presented in a 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer. The 1080p image is gorgeous with some of the strongest grain I've seen in any of these releases. The image is sharp and rich. It's hard to say whether the colors are properly presented or not, because Antonioni wasn't out to capture naturalism. There's a fascinating discussion about this topic at the Criterion forums. Well, it's fascinating for a little while anyway. Some claim that Criterion has gone too far in the direction of naturalism (by which I assume they mean more uniform and muted) than the much-admired BFI Region B release of "Red Desert" from last year. There's no definitive answer. I haven't seen the BFI version as a point of comparison, but I have no problems whatsoever with the choices Criterion has made here. The Blu-Ray represents the usual improvements over the SD release (sharper resolution, etc.), though the colors aren't much different.
The Blu-Ray is presented in LPCM 1.0. The lossless audio makes the haunting score by Giovanni Fusco and Vittorio Gelmetti sound even more haunting sound even more haunting than it sounds in Dolby Digital Mono. The sound effects (mostly in the busy but open and hollow environment of the factory) also sound great. Nary a pop or hiss to be heard. Optional English subtitles support the Italian audio.
The film is accompanied with an audio commentary by Italian film scholar David Forgacs who offers both context and a close textual reading at times. Obviously you aren't going to use a commentator on an Antonioni film who doesn't focus on formal analysis, but I appreciate the emphasis on aesthetics nonetheless.
In a big-time win for home viewers, Criterion has included two of Antonioni's early short films: "Gente del Po" (11 min, 1943-1947) and "N.U." (12 min, 1949). The first film was shot over a long period of time and apparently beset by quite a few problems (only described briefly in text form on the feature) but the final result is a poetic documentary about a trip down the Po river. "N.U." stands for "Nettezza urbana," the name of the Italian municipal cleaning service. The film documents the lives of street cleaners in Rome, also in the poetic documentary tradition, and is quite lovely. Street cleaning can't be poetic? You probably didn't think factories could be so beautiful either.
The package also included two interviews: a 12 minute interview with Antonioni that originally aired on Nov 12, 1964 on the French program "Les écrans de la ville," and a 12 minute interview with Monica Vitti, still looking great in 1990. It originally aired on March 10, 1990 on the French program "Cinéma cinémas."
Another nice feature offers a reel of Dailies from the production. They are presented without sound and are both in black and white and in color. These were recently acquired by the Cineteca di Bologna. 28 minutes.
A Trailer is also included.
The 40-page insert booklet is really great. It starts with an essay by critic Mark le Fanu. Next up is a gem, an interview of Antonioni conducted by Jean-Luc Godard for the November 1964 issue of "Cahiers du cinéma." It rocks. The interview is translated by Andrew Taylor. Antonioni also writes briefly about both short films, "Gente del Po," and "N.U."
"Red Desert" is a transfixing experience, but I don't think it is as successful as either his preceding black-and-white trilogy ("L'avventura," "La notte" (1961), "L'eclisse") or his next color feature "Blow-Up" (1966). That doesn't mean I'm dismissing "Red Desert" as "lesser Antonioni." It's a wonderful film, and obviously a essential one for anyone interested in the director's career.
The two early short films included on the disc are a great service to viewers, and the commentary track by David Forgacs provides an excellent companion to the film. The Blu-Ray transfer is superb (as is the separately released SD) and is the definitive Region A/Region 1 release (There was a previous and unloved release from Image that is now discontinued.) I usually feel silly when I use the word "Recommended" in regards to a major release like this but I usually do it anyway. It's an easy way to end the last paragraph. Strongly recommended!