I'm reminded of a quote from the master Ingmar Bergman regarding Michelangelo Antonioni. I quote it here as a means of some minor (if not overwhelming) argument:
"So devilishly sad... Antonioni never really learned the trade. He concentrated on single images, never realizing that film is a rhythmic flow of images, a movement. Sure, there are brilliant moments in his films. But I don't feel anything for L'avventura (1960), for example. Only indifference."I can see where Bergman is coming from with that statement, I really can. His films have split critics and audiences ever since L'Aavventura (and perhaps even before then, though to be frank no one starts seeing his films with his works from the 50's, they, as I did as a budding film-geek, see Blowup or maybe Zabriskie Point). His films, and Red Desert is not exception, can be sad and as well made up usually of brilliant moments more than being great films. I find myself somewhat in the middle: I'm neither in the camp that finds almost everything he made a monolithic masterpiece, nor do I find them pretentious (though at times either one of those could be applied to his works, such as, again, Blowup or Zabriskie Point respectively).
Where I may argue Bergman is on the point about the "rhythmic flow of images", and about the indifference. It should go without saying that when, say, compared to an Ingmar Bergman, Antonioni doesn't come close to making hardcore emotional connection with a willing viewer, and the images in his films flow like poetry. Then again, the same could be argued for Antonioni. Both filmmakers (oddly enough both deceased within a day of each other in 2007) go for such a streak of the existential in cinema, which is more than fine by me. But what Bergman gets at is Antonioni's stubbornness, at times, to favor the image, the composition, the photography and depth of image over the emotions of the actors, and perhaps directs them, or refuses to direct, in the way of really garnering the best out of them.
In the case of Red Desert, I would argue that there is a rhythmic flow of images, and it does serve to tell a story. It's not always a story that one can follow so easily if one is expecting the conventional. Make no mistake, this is one of "those" art-films. You know the kind; indeed I was saddened after a while that I couldn't see the film as it was intended, on a big screen in a small movie theater in the Village in lower Manhattan (i.e. the Film Forum). It's about mood and character over plot; the protagonist, Giuliana (Antonioni's muse), is a mother of a small boy and married to a man, but is also a true-blue neurotic. Maybe she was one always, or maybe the environment she's around - an industrial smörgåsbord - when she reveals herself, at first to herself and then to others, she finds that she's being crushed, by health (a 99-degree temperature freaks her out), by the sea (she's right by it on a boat at one point), or by those around her that may be close to her or may not be (Richard Harris' character Corrado).
First a note about how Antonioni does shoot his film, and those "brilliant moments" as Bergman refers to. Such moments really are, indeed, shots, or scenes with a number of angles that bring out a certain mood of the piece (in, say, L'Avventura it was the nature of the island, or at the end of the Passenger that near-final tracking shot isolating the figure in his room). Red Desert's mood is the factual nature of industry, and how humans must dwell in it or work in it or just stare at poisonous yellow smoke in the sky.
Antonioni may like industry for all we know, but its presence in the film is like that out of science fiction, and the audio blips that accompany it (or for just Giuliana at times) accentuate this. It's all grays and black smoke and large smokestacks and factories and long corridors and spaces of blankness. It overpowers the characters, and whether they like it or not it's all there, consuming around them. It's almost a relief when a character or characters are surrounded by brighter colors, such as the red walls (albeit faded by time) and the rich blue of the sea. If nothing else, when Antonioni sets his sights on those tall and overwhelming markers- even a ship at sea seems to over-take the scenery when it comes into view- it's an engrossing sight, almost despite (or related to) the nature of the lead character.
When it comes time though for Antonioni to set his sights on the actors, away from those landscapes... it's still very good work. Monica Vitti has a sort of disposition here with her character that we may have seen before. It is a fidgety character, or sometimes ornery, or just plain unsure of her place in the world. Antonioni sets it up to be someone we can identify with, or might want to feel sympathy with. Where the problem may come in (and where, for example, Bergman might triumph in comparison) is with some of the dialog. Not all of it, and certainly there are moments of profundity, but some stretches are hard to take as Giuliana speaks to Corrado about the troubles of her life, the existential decay, and, eventually, her suicide attempt.
Vitti is good here, but perhaps it's not simply about the dialog that can be unnerving. She is so withdrawn, not just as a character but as a performance, that we do feel quite sad, perhaps devastated, once it's over. But I still, after finishing the first viewing, know for sure if it's the kind of devastation that is lasting and strong and moving, or if it's annoying. Perhaps it's a combination. Other actors do decently in their roles, some of them such as in a surprisingly (for this subject matter) lively scene inside of a cramped quarter on a boathouse with some characters drinking and playing sensually-suggestive games, provide some much needed warmth. Richard Harris also appears to be good in his role, though compared to other Antonioni male "heroes" like Nicholson or Alain Delon or David Hemmings, his performance suffers by a) a withdrawn appearance (or disinterest in the role) due to the character, and b) by proxy of the Criterion Collection DVD, the dubbing in Italian without an option for English dubbing detracts from his full work.
But back to the emotion: is it there? In some moments, yes. One of the most memorable, perhaps just the spot-on thing of crisis of neuroses, involves Giuliana's son's legs. For some reason they can't move, there's no feeling in them, not a tap on the knee or anything can change it. She takes him to the doctor and there's a wait for a diagnosis- of course much too long for Giuliana- and it's around here that I was pulled into the film, that I was concerned for both characters, for how it would be resolved but also on how someone else with a real physical impairment would affect her. The follow-up to this scene is also incredible, a momentary milestone for Antonioni, as Giuliana tells a story to her son about a girl who lives on an island by herself, seeing sailboats all day but finally seeing one that is a real sailboat, old-style, and has no passengers on it. Then sweet singing of a siren back on shore, and rocks that "become like flesh." There is a simplicity to the story but a complexity merged with how it's shot- the brightness of the colors, the change in mood, that is startling.
Ultimately, Red Desert was a moving experience, and aesthetically pleasing and, indeed, could move to a kind of music that is hard to distinguish as anything less than "rhythmic". Antonioni has his pretensions, and they are made loud and clear at times. It also attempts to break some ground with the psychology of a broken woman, though, again, it being the 1960's and a time for the deconstruction of mental barriers with characters in European cinema this isn't anything exactly "new". What is insightful is the nature of the landscape with its lead characters, and how others respond to it in kind. I only felt indifference at certain instances, when the director slowed down to such a crawl that it became hard to take. But it never bores, or aims to do so, at least to one looking for color and depth and the dread in Monica Vitti's profile. One can stop for each shot, or let it run along as a tale of sadness that doesn't stop too long.
ADDENDUM: As I re-read this post, I look back on the part about comparing Ingmar Bergman's work that it "flows like poetry." Which is true. And I want little to do with you if you see the majority of his work and don't think there's some of it there. But at the same time, I'm now reminded of that line from the Red Letter Media review of The Phantom Menace, specifically the clip of George Lucas talking about events in the film: "It's like poetry, it rhymes. ::Shrug::" One has to be careful with saying these things. So there.