Monday, 24 September 2012



It would be very, very easy, and extremely lazy, to just dismiss Michelangelo Antonioni's celebrated 1964 study of "cultural neurosis and existential doubt" (thank you, Wikipedia) as a boring and impenetrable load of old wank. Certainly it is cripplingly boring, it's a massive struggle to get into - a struggle which I eventually lost - and it has no plot or characters or incident of any interest whatsoever: it is a European art film after all. Is it merely crass philistinism to find it dull and meaningless? If the old cliche about the viewer only getting out of Art what he/she brings to it, is it somehow my fault for not liking the movie? Why isn't it Antonioni's fault? He only directed the bloody thing after all.

Somewhere in a bleak industrial hellscape full of factories belching fire and smoke and unspeakable noise, Giuliana (Monica Vitti) seems to be having trouble fitting in with the world following an apparent car accident that left her physically (but not psychologically) unharmed. She thinks she wants to open a shop but has no idea what to sell. Corrado (a dubbed Richard Harris) turns up to recruit personnel for a factory in South America; they, her husband and a few others then hole up in a wharfside shack for what seems like ages, lounging around on a bed, eating quails' eggs and talking nonsense before, burning one of the partition walls; then a cargo ship looms out of the oppressive fog which apparently has some kind of contagious infection on board.

Then Giuliana's young son is mysteriously paralysed; she tells him a bedtime story about a girl who spots a mysterious ship and then hears magical singing coming from the rocks - only to find that her son was only pretending to be paralysed, for absolutely no conceivable reason. And on and on it plods. None of The Red Desert makes a shred of sense as a coherent narrative, there's no invitation to get involved with the characters or anything that happens. So what's the point? Is the struggle to make it to the end supposed to mirror Giuliana's struggle to make sense of her life and her circumstances? Why is most of the movie swathed in cold monochrome (even the mud looks black) except for splashes of bright red everywhere: handrails, barrels of chemicals, the internal wall of the dockside shack?

Search me, guv. Look, obviously film needs to experiment: someone invented the close-up, the jump cut, the Steadicam, Cinerama and Smellovision. And obviously different films and filmmakers need to attempt different things; it would be a colossally boring medium if there was no stylistic or technical differences between Citizen Kane and The Fast And The Furious. Furthermore, it is nice that some films require you, the mere viewer, to up your game and work with the film rather than being spoonfed simplistic mush. But there's a difference between difficult and impossible, and there is a point at which the film's likely rewards are just not going to be worth the effort. Obviously the intent is there, but why put it across in such a manner? Presumably we're just supposed to feel as baffled, bewildered and alienated as Giuliana is. Well, congratulations because that's precisely what was achieved.

I'm not asking for car chases or axe murders (although it might have helped), but Art cannot live by endless neurosis-based bleating alone. Is The Red Desert a bad film, then? Certainly not: there's also a difference between a bad movie and a film you just don't like. And they're not necessarily mutually exclusive; Troll 2 is a bad movie that I don't like, Lifeforce is a really bad movie that I do like. I'm guessing this movie is a moderately good one that I just can't stand and which seemed hellbent on either putting me to sleep or daring me to switch the thing off. Well, I put the two hours in. And I'm not an idiot. I rather liked The Passenger, and I remember finding Blow-Up interesting. But I just plain don't get this one, and I suddenly have no desire to check out any more of Antonioni's films.



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