Red Desert (1964)

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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.

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Red Road (2006)

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The film that slotted Arnold between Wheatley and Barnard in my trinity of today’s daring British filmmakers.

Interesting to go backwards to this after American Honey. The latter has pressure points of peril where Star inches through scenes of nauseating tension under the eyes or hands of quietly terrifying men. Red Road starts out as a drama of voyeurism, with the CCTV control room appearing both space-age and prefigurative of Black Mirror and NSA/GCHQ news.

Jackie’s journey out into the world at her fingertips is a sinking-in as if into quicksand; reminded me both of Scarlett Johansson’s excursions in Under the Skin and Jeanne Moreau’s slow spiral through Rome in La Notte, with the danger of the former crossing the psychogeographical dimensionality of the latter, the Red Road high rises looming Bradburyesque above bruised and battered Glasgow.

Interesting to watch after In The House: the filmmaker’s compulsion to ‘recreate’, re-stage influential traumas? (Jackie sees the human stories behind her screens) A desire to reach back into the past and correct course. That peril in American Honey is the quicksand that pulls Jackie in. The film becomes a lot braver, more physical, the kitchen sink a lot dirtier (Katie Dickie’s performance gains great depth here, too). There’s a sickening sense of parenthood in Jackie’s relationship to her situation, like she’s trying to undo some perverse birth. The denouement shows us the wan and cold world of the present day, the truths that have always been there.

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