The first time we see Monica Vitti’s character Giuliana, the Italian woman whose mental struggle with her environment is chronicled in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert (1964), she is an olive-green figure walking along a black, desolate wasteland. This green, a symbol of nature and tranquility, contrasts with the orange flames pulsing from the factory and the blackened trees that run along its walls. As the camera tightens on her, we see that this color runs in contrast with Giuliana – she begins to act strangely, buying partially-eaten bread from a stranger and hiding in brush to devour it like a starving wild animal. During this moment, Antonioni places her low in the frame with the chimney fire towering behind her, a symbol of the neurosis flaring up in her mind. The descent begins now.
Red Desert is about Giuliana’s alienation from the environment around her, taken over by the industry created during Italy’s reconstruction after World War II. Giuliana’s husband is a manager at the chemical processing plant, binding her to what appears to be a science-fiction world of dark terrain and large metal structures. Almost all colors are muted here, as if diffused by the smoke billowing from the chemical plant. These colors are contrasted by the vividness of the “pink beach” story Giuliana tells her son regarding a young woman living peacefully on a gorgeous, isolated paradise. The colors are deep and bright, and the actress is dark and tanned unlike all the other characters, who have been paled by winter. While this sequence is meant to show the richness of the natural world, in contrast to the cold artificiality of the industrial one, Antonioni finds beauty in both. There is an elegance in the design of the structures, from the large rounded silos to the colossal satellite towers that extend man’s reach to the stars. Even the smoldering dump, where Giuliana eats her bread at the beginning, has a certain beauty in its monochromatism. From her point of view, it’s all completely alien, and understandably so. She’s surrounded by objects that aren’t easily identifiable in purpose and nearly all the art decorating her house is abstract.
Relating to a woman on the verge of a mental breakdown can be difficult, and to keep the audience within the scope of Giuliana’s complex perspective, Antonioni films her often with her back to the camera, giving focus to her mental state and whatever she’s looking at. Ingmar Bergman used this technique in The Virgin Spring when Töre desperately calls out to God for answers. By not showing the character’s face, one of the most important tools of any actor, the audience has to use their imagination to fill in the blanks with only the visual context given by the director and their own personal experience. By doing this throughout the film, Antonioni is challenging the audience to be an active viewer, contemplating and empathizing with what’s happening in the film, as opposed to allowing them to be passive, idly waiting for the director to tell them how to think or feel.
One of the first times Antonioni shows the back of Giuliana’s head, when she’s walking by the strike, everything and everyone she’s looking at is out of focus, creating a separation between her and the rest of the world. Perhaps all of the colors and landscape we are observing are warped by her neurotic perspective. This concept is most clear near the end, when Giuliana finally makes love to Corrado. The camera moves behind her head again and now, we see the colors of the room change from the bland beige to purple and eventually pink, a color associated with love and weakness.
Further immersing us in Giuliana’s point of view is the environment itself, which invades nearly every frame, always competing and often winning Giuliana’s and the viewers’ attention. Sometimes characters are obscured by objects in the foreground, such as pink flowers, a blue bar, or the metal lattice of a radio tower. Antonioni also pushes characters to the edge of the frame, boxing them in with the lines of his visual compositions. When Giuliana tells the story of the girl at the hospital, she moves into a dark corner of the room and is further compartmentalized by the frame of the door behind her. The image is complete when she holds her hands up as if pressing up against invisible walls, giving the impression that she realizes she’s been enclosed by her environment.
Antonioni doesn’t only focus on what we’re seeing, but from where we see it. He places the camera in impossible vantage points throughout the film, calling attention to his manipulation of the environment. In the scene where Corrado and Giuliana have their affair, the camera is filming from behind the headboard, which was established to be firmly against the wall. Either the wall or the bed must have been moved for Antonioni to get this perspective, and the viewer can’t help but be aware of it. This technique is on full display during the orgy scene, in which six characters crowd into a small red room. There’s barely enough space for all of these people, let alone a man and his film camera, shooting behind characters where walls should be. At one point, he even moves the camera in a horseshoe-shaped tracking shot around Giuliana when she proclaims she feels like making love. It is a moment where he shows the freedom to move within a suffocating environment, which is what Giuliana is struggling to do. While this gives the audience a sense of flexibility, Antonioni also uses his camera movement and editing to displace the audience, exercising his control over the viewer. The most humorous instance is when Giuliana hugs her son in his room, just after he demonstrates with some liquid and a dropper that 1 + 1 = 1. The camera is placed behind the son so we see Giuliana’s face. Something outside the frame catches her attention and she lets him go to investigate it. She crosses in front of the camera and Antonioni cuts to a medium shot of her moving towards a dresser, where she gets some shirts. The “joke” is that, while this looks like one fluid moment, it is two separate events. In the first shot, she’s in her son’s room; in the second, she’s in her bedroom, and time has passed during the edit. We will never know what originally caught her eye.
In the last scene, Giuliana’s son asks her if birds will die because of the poisonous gas coming from the factory smokestacks. She tells him the birds have learned better now and that they avoid the fumes, suggesting that she too has learned how to deal with this unnatural world. Antonioni reinforces this message with one last shot of the back of her head, where we see the environment as a blurry collage of colors in front of her. She is still unable to understand her environment, but as she walks away from the plant, she does so with perhaps the knowledge of how to avoid its unpleasantness. In the final frame we’re left alone the chemical plant, discharging its toxic yellow gas into the sky, and when the words “FINE” come up on the screen, we’ll walk away from it just like Giuliana did. Whether or not we have the same understanding of how to deal with our environment is up to us.
— Jae K. Renfrow