Monday 23 July 2012

Nausea: "The Red Desert"

Michelangelo Antonioni's The Red Desert, first released in 1964 and reissued in a new print this week, is essentially two films in one. The first is a love-triangle drama involving an engineer (Richard Harris), a woman left neurotic in the wake of an accident (Monica Vitti), and the latter's husband (Carlo Chionetti), who just so happens to be the former's present employer. The second is almost a gallery piece - yes, it really is an art movie - studying other, more tangled shapes yet: the post-industrial Italian landscape forcing these characters to duck, stoop and cower. Blackened soil. Stagnant, sludgy lakes. A system that removes men from their families, then charges them for calling home, the better to turn a profit. What we're watching, it turns out, is the endpoint of the corruption that a filmmaker like Fellini rather got off on - the exploitation (of Italy's landscape, and of its labour force) that persisted through the ages into the Andreotti and Berlusconi eras.

For the ever-dissenting Antonioni, this is a terrible, terrifying thing, and as all-pervading as the smog that often drifts into shot to cloud the characters' thoughts and lungs. Vitti was never more ravishing or compelling, and her face never more Picasso-like than it was in colour - a whole Cubist landscape in itself - but it's evident her Giuliana (and, it turns out, her young son) has been badly weakened by the world around her, the electronic buzzing on the soundtrack corresponding to the vibrato of highly-strung nerves, or the ringing of the ears one often gets in rooms where large amounts of electrical equipment has been plugged in. That Giuliana has become jaded indeed is evident from her questioning of the engineer: "What do people expect me to do with my eyes? What should I look at?" Better-adjusted viewers will soon realise they could hang just about every frame of the film, even those recorded in the dark, satanic back of beyond, on their wall.

The visual design is geometric to the point of abstraction, yet The Red Desert may ultimately make for Antonioni's most accessible (and most immediately comprehensible) work: he demonstrates such a fascinating way of describing this world - tracing a ship's pipework with his camera, or allowing the actors to punch out wooden slats from a set to create an entirely new, Mondrian-like frame-within-a-frame - that it's possible not to care how little is going on dramatically. A fellow viewer described the experience as like watching paint dry, and - given Antonioni's use of colour - she's right in some respects. But the paint is toxic, and applied in brilliantly controlled strokes. It'd make a fine double-bill (for the patient) with Todd Haynes's [safe], which tops Antonioni by actually delivering its nauseous heroine to the desert; both films ask us, in their every scene, what kind of environment this might be in which to fall in love, raise kids, try and make a life for yourself.

The Red Desert opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

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