Sickly and weird, like its protagonist. A mother unable to “mesh” with the poisoned world around her, in the words of her impassive husband. He has distanced himself from a traumatic episode which torments her still, bleeding out from her feverish dreams into her waking perspective on people and existence.
People in places, people in places: Antonioni’s bread and butter. The return to the factory at the end reinforces disappointment at its absence for most of the film. The steam jets and winding pipes form a jungle around the foremen, who are usually framed off-centre and in the middle distance, robbed of any agency. Antonioni’s eye for evocative geometry is otherwise most apparent in Giuliana’s home, whose tank windows and industrial railings taunt and block her. She tends to her son who seems affected by an atmospheric poison, often unresponsive, surrounded by mechanical toys. Giuliana quietens a chattering robot before lovingly putting him to sleep.
People in places. Antonioni’s dialogue is sometimes a little too on the nose in its foggy glumness, and I’d put Red Desertalongside La Notte as far as this goes. “There’s something wrong with reality, and nobody will tell me what it is,” protests Giuliana to her would-be saviour Corrado, the itinerant businessman who has internalised the social deracination of his Patagonian project. Richard Harris plays him with a quiet and cruel coldness, while most other characters are literally squeezed into the initially engrossing set of a peeling riverside cabin, where an abortive and disoriented party substitutes for the African dancing scene in L’Eclisse (distanced and neutered bourgeois fascination with perceived passion and physicality of foreign cultures). Discomforting settings are important in Antonioni’s films – thinking of the continual, almost overtly redundant returning to the stock market in L’Eclisse – but we really soak up too much time in this little room with its pale company.
The palette is beautiful, as could perhaps have been expected from such a visual director’s first foray into colour film. There’s a boldness to abandoning the lonely concrete worlds of the city which made L’Eclisse and parts of La Notte so hypnotic. Boredom is the name of the whispering marshes, the sucking mud underfoot in Antonioni’s films and Red Desert sucks a little too hard. He made Blow-Up two years later though so it’s all good.