Tuesday, November 01, 2005

RED DESERT (1964) - Michelangelo Antonioni

Antonioni’s Red Desert is the textbook European art film. The type of movie celebrated in what few revival houses remain in the country and derided in beer commercials as the type of movie the Guy’s girlfriend wants to watch instead of the Big Game. Whether or not you will like it wholly depends on your affinity or lack of tolerance for 1) very long takes of people moving through artfully composed landscapes, 2) people having long elliptical conversations about “life,” 3) beautiful European women who wear too much eye makeup and take themselves way too seriously, and 4) no semblance of a plot whatsoever because, dammit, real life rarely has a “plot.”

In other words, Red Desert is one of those dividing line movies that really separates the cinematic wheat from the chaff. Where do I fall? Wouldn’t you know it…smack dab in the middle.
In a nutshell, Red Desert is about a housewife (Monica Vitti) who’s going mad. Apparently, she suffered an accident (automobile, I think) prior to the beginning of the movie that has had some serious mental effects. And by serious mental effects, I mean serious European art film ENNUI.
She walks around a lot of desolate factory-ridden landscapes, asks the occasional worker for his half-eaten sandwich, then hides away among the bushes to eat it in private. She frequently hears droning noises (as do we) and the sounds of distant people screaming who may or may not be there. At one point, she thinks her son has polio for about a day (and he may have as far as I can guess), before having a life alternating conversation with a sailor as they speak in two different languages.
Oh yeah, I forgot to mention the pseudo-affair she has with factory entrepreneur Richard Harris, who can only be described as a world-class “crazy-chaser." He manages to hang in there through all the tics and pangs and distant voices and still be very much into her. But I guess if “crazy” looks like Monica Vitti, you might be tempted to stick around too.
As for me, sticking around was a little trying but not without some minor rewards. As with Blow-Up and Zabriskie Point (the only two other Antonionis I’ve seen), the cinematography and compositions are fabulous, sometimes telling whole stories within their design. As for the stories the characters tell each other, there were a few nice moments of dialogue tucked away inside a good portion of ponderous pseudo-intellectualizing. For instance, there’s a nice little discussion of various worldwide aphrodisiacs during a group scene that nearly turns into a very lazy group orgy. But wouldn’t you know it, Vitti has to go and hear voices, killing the whole moment.
For the record, I like European women who wear too much eye makeup and take themselves way too seriously. I could watch Vitti walk around listlessly, hearing voices, grabbing half-eaten sandwiches until the cows come home if it were in real life. But through the veil of a movie screen, it can get a little tiring when observed with the removed objectivity as that captured by Antonioni’s lens.
For a better approach to this story, I gotta go with the Greek-American over the Italian. John Cassevettes’ A Woman Under the Influence. It may not be as pretty to look at as Vitti, but man will it keep you engaged.

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