Michelangelo Antonioni is the master of disconnection, so good even his own name seems fractured, hidden inside it’s own repetitions.
2012 is his centenary and to mark this occasion the BFI are releasing a restored version of Red Desert, Antonioni’s first colour film. Here we follow Giuliana played by Monica Vitti. She has a son with her husband Ugo who works as an engineer in a port town dominated by industry. Giuliana is adrift, unable to connect with her life, followed by demons that manifest themselves in the brutal contours and colours of the factories and docks.
Colour is emotion and here it is an oppressive force stamping corporate authority on this population. Giuliana may resist with her auburn hair and green coat but she is fighting a losing battle. In contrast to the stark shapes and colours is the sea fog that envelops this world. It swallows up characters, buildings and whole ships with it’s malignant drift, and stops us seeing life beyond the edges of this world.
The score adds to this unsettling feeling using electronic manipulation to create dissonant sounds – a voice for the looming pipework. Like Vitti, we can never relax, never be comfortable here. It feels like she’s wandered into an industrial film, lost and hoping to find something in this barren landscape.
Her possible salvation comes in the form of Richard Harris’ Corrado. His subdued force and charisma seem to offer some hope. Unfortunately Harris’ voice is also lost, replaced by that of an Italian actor. Dubbing was an unfortunate trend of Italian cinema, the sacrifice made in their search for visual poetry. As Bresson once said, “Their lips betray them” and here Harris’ character is hidden, withdrawn. First dubbed and then subtitled you become twice removed from the truth – perhaps this is the way Antonioni likes it.
Unfortunately Red Desert has a fatal lack of drive. The brilliance of its successor Blow Up was in the way it married a bold use of colour and detached characters with an ingenious thriller plot. There the main character was forced to take an interest, to engage with his surroundings. Without this push of story Red Desert becomes as forlornly lost as it’s lead character. It remains an intriguing experiment with one scene, where Giuliana briefly escapes from the shackles of her manmade surroundings, that is pure sublime cinema.
The BFI restoration of Red Desert will be released on 27 July in selected cinemas and on DVD