A beautiful and distracted woman named Giuliana (Monica Vitti) wanders aimlessly through the grimy perimeter streets outside a power generation plant amidst the intermittent chaos of a workers’ strike, accompanied by her young son Valerio (Valerio Bartoleschi). Observing one of the striking workers eating his lunch, she instinctually begins to feel hungry, approaches him, and offers to buy the half-eaten sandwich from the bewildered stranger. After voraciously finishing her meal in a secluded area, she pays an unexpected visit to her husband Ugo (Carlo Chionetti), the manager of the power generation plant, who is preoccupied with assisting an engineer named Corrado Zeller (Richard Harris) in finding specialized workers for an international industrial project. In Giuliana’s absence, Ugo expresses his concern to Corrado of his wife’s erratic behavior that seems to have manifested as a result of a car accident. Corrado is captivated by the sensitive and enigmatic Giuliana, and begins to accompany her as she goes through the empty rituals of a “normal” life: planning the interior decoration of an unspecified shop that she has decided to establish in a near desolate street; visiting the wife of a potential employee for Corrado’s project; wandering through a power line construction site; meeting Ugo and some friends at a neglected fishing cottage for a meaningless liaison. However, her fleeting connection to the emotionally inscrutable Corrado is soon tested when Giuliana’s overwhelming anxiety resurfaces after Valerio feigns a crippling illness during Ugo’s absence from home.
Marking Michelangelo Antonioni’s entry into color film, Red Desert is a visually dense, metaphoric, and emotionally austere portrait of spiritual desolation, technological disconnection, and environmental malaise. Exploring similar themes of estrangement and ennui as his seminal trilogy of alienation (L’Avventura, La Notte, and L’Eclisse), Antonioni’s color palette juxtaposes muted earth tones and bold, artificial (and often primary) colors to reflect the unnaturality and inherent competition between natural order and industrialization in a modern, and increasingly alienated, society: the automated rhythm of toxic, yellow fume emissions from the plant as Giuliana and Valerio pass nearby that bookend the film; the brightly painted, color-coded pipes that populate the interior spaces of the control facility as Giuliana pays a visit to the emotionally distant Ugo; the bright red, high power antennas that visually bisect the landscape during Giuliana and Corrado’s walk (note Theo Angelopoulos’ homage to Antonioni through a similarly framed horizon shot of telephone line technicians in The Suspended Step of the Stork). Antonioni further manifests the encroachment and toll of industrialization through disquieting ambient noise (modulated high frequency sounds and monotonous drone), bleak and polluted landscapes (the blackened desolate area where Giuliana consumes her appropriated sandwich and the fishing ban on the waters surrounding the disused shack), and the intrusion of man-made objects into the frame (the repeated image of ships traversing the horizon). Inevitably, the seeming cure to Giuliana’s indefinable illness proves to be a resigned acceptance and emotional immunity to the irreconcilable chaos of her dehumanized and alienating environment.
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