Video Note:
Antonioni in Color
21 March 2019

¶ Michelangelo Antonioni’s Il Deserto rosso (Red Desert) was his last motion picture to be shot wholly in Italy. It was also his first to utilize color photography. His next feature, Blow-Up, would luxuriate in backgrounds of saturated greens and browns, but Deserto rosso is fastidious, often suggesting a monochrome manuscript that has been illuminated with occasional daubs of color. Reds and greens are vibrant, but blues and yellows are muted: yellow is usually the color of the poisonous emissions that drift from the chimneys that tower over a menacing industrial landscape. In this movie, that landscape signifies not the dreariness of working-class life but the oblique affluence of engineers whose hands, if they ever get dirty, don’t stay dirty for long. The most remarkable color is the pink of Richard Harris’s face, which seems lifted from a trecento fresco. Arranged in brilliant compositions captured by Carlo di Palma’s cinematography, colors compensate for the typically Sixties anemia of the art-house narrative.

It is difficult to watch Monica Vitti, whose starring role is supported by Harris and the others, without thinking of bipolar disorders and the medications that treat them. It is also difficult not to see in her almost violently ambivalent responses to Harris’s attentions a feminist critique of patriarchal good intentions, although Harris certainly contributes to this by shading his overt desire to help the distressed wife of a colleague with the impatient appetites of the hunt. At the time, of course — 1964 — we saw Vitti as an icon of the malaise that was supposed to disturb every right-thinking soul in those days. This existential discomfort was perhaps the final manifestation of modernism, which, made manifest in the essentially sensuous medium of film, could never appear to be anything but gratuitous — simply unnecessary. At the end of the following decade, Woody Allen would impersonate, in Stardust Memories, a filmmaker who wants to be as miserable as Vitti, but who can’t pull it off because his desire is actually a paradoxical bid for authenticity. Allen made the parody well worth watching by reviving Antonioni’s august and hypnotizing imagery. 

Considering how well — how beautifully — Il Deserto rosso has survived the aesthetic fashions that prevailed when it was made, and to which Antonioni certainly appears to have been attentive, we are reminded that great artists do best when they stop intending to do anything. 

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