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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Monica Vitti chokes on the smog of modern living

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Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: The Venice Film Festival begins, so we’re recommending some of the best winners of the fest’s highest honor, the Golden Lion.


Red Desert (1964)

Leave it to Michelangelo Antonioni, a master of dramatic desaturation, to set his first color film in one of the most colorless places imaginable. Red Desert, for which the Italian filmmaker won top honors at Venice in 1964, unfolds against the gray smoke stacks and grayer skies of industrial Ravenna. Perversely, the filmmaker is said to have even painted the trees and shrubs monochromatic; he gained access, for the first time, to a full spectrum of colors, only to manually blot many of them out. There is method to this madness, of course: Against a sea of bleach and charcoal, the pastels really pop—a green jacket looking greener, an orange flame burning oranger, a puff of sickly yellow smog almost… pungent in its vibrancy.

The fourth consecutive feature Antonioni made with his leading lady of choice, Monica Vitti, Red Desert hits some of the same notes of vague dissatisfaction as the pair’s earlier, black-and-white collaborations. Except, this time, Vitti’s character, the wife of a prominent factory manager (Carlo Chionetti), suffers from more than a case of incurable ennui. Fresh out of the hospital after an accident that everyone talks about in hushed tones, her Giuliana seems perpetually distressed by the environment, with its looming towers and blackened soil. This being an Antonioni movie, Giuliana naturally drifts into a potential affair with one of her husband’s colleagues (Richard Harris). But the distraction of a new attraction isn’t enough to stem the tide of anxiety rising inside of her.

Vitti, one of cinema’s greatest beauties, had by this point mastered the aura of discontent that her director liked to wrap her in. She could probably play bored and rich and spiritually unfulfilled in her sleep. But Red Desert gets more from her—a trembling, fidgety unease, crucial to the enduring genre of films about women coming unraveled. Is it overstimulation that ails her? Or is Italy’s new industrial revolution polluting her spirit, just as surely as it’s polluting land and sea? Antonioni resists psychoanalysis, focusing instead on placing his muse against an oppressively drab modern landscape—made more even more sci-fi strange through the blips and bloops of an electronic score—and foreshadowing an explosion with billows of steam, bursts of fire, and those anxious splashes of color that the director now had at his disposal.

Availability: Red Desert is available on Criterion DVD and Blu-ray from Netflix, Amazon, and possibly your local video store/library. It’s also currently streaming on Hulu Plus.