Tuesday, 19 February 2019

Tell not show… Red Desert (1964), BFI with introduction from Enrica Antonioni

"...the Giuliana in Red Desert is  not an invention of mine and I have found people like her everywhere... 

Antonioni was inspired to make this film by seeing a row of trees outside his hometown of Ferrara dying as a result of pollution from new factories. He had a scene in which he painted hundreds of trees white to show the impact but it rained and he had to abandon the shot… but he had other shots up his sleeve and, most importantly, he had Monica Vitti.

Introducing this film was Enrica Antonioni, the director’s partner for 36 years and who also worked as producer and actor in his films from The Passenger onwards. Here she described herself as not so much an expert of cinema but of the man and of the artist, who she remains passionately committed to, spearheading the ongoing screening of his work and the maintenance of his position amongst the finest filmmakers. She explained the title of this film which Michelangelo was originally going to call Blue and Green, as being about the desert man is making; a virile, blood-drenched wasteland in which one must find new ways to survive. As a seeker, the director felt at home in as, after the success of Blow Up he headed for the barren landscapes of Zabriskie Point before getting Jack Nicholson lost in the Sahara for The Passenger.

In his first colour film, red predominates making this one of the greats of scarlet cinema up there with say, Red Shoes, Taxi Driver and Deep End. It’s a state of mind as well as the most primeval warning of nature, fight or flight also hell and despair. If this is Antonioni’s ecological film it is also his most specific film about neurosis with Monica Vitti playing Giuliana, a woman driven to psychiatric trauma by an inability, as Enrica pointed out, to assimilate with her surroundings and the New Environment of post-war industrialisation.

She quoted her husband in saying that acceptance and adaptation went hand in hand, and that our survival depends on this. Like a Bedouin he was willing to see the best in the environments that are always important in his films – concrete alienation would be replaced by geographic only after this trip to the increasingly polluted desolation of northern Italy – he was born in Ferrara, a land of mists, which fired his imagination and which features in this film as the characters head off to a shack on the coast for a bawdy weekend and are shocked to see a huge container ship emerge outside their window, the fog obscuring its approach.

The film opens with eerie, fractured electronic music from Vittorio Gelmetti, as Giuliana and her child, Valerio, take a seemingly innocent walk along the road outside her husband’s factory where a strike is taking place. It’s another of his extended set-pieces and when suddenly a member of the union hails a lone strike-breaker, we see the individual under pressure from collective forces beyond his control. Monica approaches a striker and buys a half-eaten roll from him; this is not what we were expecting from this smart glamorous woman and, as she hides behind a hedge and eats the food, she was perhaps too frightened to take elsewhere.

This was Vitti’s fourth film with her then partner, and it is perhaps her most vulnerable and telling performance and we really have to study her hard to follow a nuanced and complex – frustrating and rewarding – emotional journey that could, perhaps only be delivered by such a close, cinematic couple. Not unusually for Michelangelo’s films, a woman in search of a deep connection, is ultimately miss-read even by, in this case even a sensitive and emotionally intelligent man and we can only guess at the inspiration.

Richard Harris (you know, Jared’s Dad!) plays successful entrepreneur Corrado Zeller – a friend of Giuliana’s husband Ugo (Carlo Chionetti) – a man who is always on the move and never settled whether it’s in his home town of Turin or the city he grew up in, Bologna… Clearly, he still hasn’t found whatever it is, Bono, that he’s looking for and, as he plans a business in South America, he very much decides he’d like to take a trip to Giuliana.

Carlo Chionetti and Richard Harris
Antonioni sets up this vague love triangle almost in passing as the concern of Ugo is his wife’s mental health; she is in recovery and treated with child-like care by his business-like, brain; there’s money to be made and factories to build. Even their apartment is cold and angular with the only warmth being provided by a Romanesque stool, stuck out, unnaturally on a landing, providing no comfort.

The full background to Giulana’s breakdown is only gradually revealed and the couple plus Corrado and three pals head off for a wild weekend in the cramped quarters of that small “love shack” on the coast where much drink is consumed and boundaries are nearly broken… Then the ship arrives and it appears to be quarantined meaning that the couples run off before, Giulana in a panic almost drives her car over the end of the quay…

Gradually Giulana reveals more to Corrado, especially when Ugo goes off on business and we think we know where it’s heading when she tells him if only her husband would ask the same questions about her health. She crashed a car and, it transpires tried to take her own life and Corrado takes this all in his stride, saying all the right things, which I’m sure he believes. It is only when, after her son tricks her into thinking he has polio, that, in desperate relief after he reveals his deception, she runs to find Corrado at his hotel…

The romantic union the film had been hinting it doesn’t quite transpire and in one of the director’s more powerful scenes of heterosexual confusion, the man fails to give the woman what she really needs. As ever, these moments feel autobiographical and, indeed, Enrica says that this film was his last “purely autobiographical…” as he wanted to move far beyond his bourgeoise upbringing. I do wonder if she and Monica sometimes watch these films together and laugh in recognition, smiling over their Campari as another classic Michelangelo-moment is revealed.

There’s, of course, far more to the film than this but redered with Carlo Di Palma's incredible cinematography, this believable story of mental illness at a time of change and danger, it is hard to better. I’ve said it before but watching Antonioni is like watching a silent film, the dialogue is sparse and the expressiveness of the leads always at such a high level, especially Monica, Jean, Marcello, David, Vanessa, Sarah and Jack… you spend two hours reading their facial “intertitles” always engaged and never quite sure.

He always leaves a little meaning left undiscovered… it took him a long time to put these films together and, for these persistent mysteries, you can see it was worth it: “I look and tell what I see, I do not show…”

In her conclusion, Enrica Antonioni quoted her partner:

 “…much of humanity has not yet adapted to the new times, it has not filled the gap between moral antiquity and (today)… neurosis reveals the concerns… the Giuliana in Red Desert is  not an invention of mine and I have found people like her everywhere, it’s not me, it’s our stories that venture into psychopathology and if we were all aware that we live in a state of neurosis, society would find a solution. Otherwise men in crisis will inevitably bring the World to ruin.”

And this, as she said, was fifty years ago.

The BFI Antonioni has been a joy and each screening has revealed so much more about the work especially with tonight’s introduction: this is a director who’s work still inspires and still carries so much meaning. Next up I have Zabriskie Point so we’re ending with a bang.

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