Criterion Files #522: Red Desert

By  · Published on September 8th, 2010

Let’s just get this out of the way first. I think Red Desert (1964) is Michelangelo Antonioni’s very best film. Better than L’Avventura, better than The Passenger, and better than Blow-Up (though I’ve never been a huge fan of the latter). In some ways it’s one of Antonioni’s oddest films, and in others it flirts with inaccessibility, but not only is the film beautiful, it’s poignant and explores a fascinating array of themes. It’s heavy, it’s a breakthrough, and it’s profound.

Antonioni’s Post-Apocalypse

In many ways Red Desert begins where most of Antonioni’s work begins: a site of alienation, except this one broodingly lenses the machinations of industry in all their man-made, seemingly dehumanizing glory. And “dehumanizing” and “glory” aren’t intended here as contradictory terms or to set up an ironic juxtaposition: it’s a straightforward, sincere sentiment. When one watches Red Desert, one can’t help but marvel at the incredible composition in the film’s portrayal of modern industry. Yes, these are objects and buildings that exist, on the surface, as ugly because we are conditioned to view them as such, and because they seem to always disappear into an eternally grey, infinite fog whose haze might be the result of no nature at all. But when viewed with Antonioni’s eye, these machinations turn into an unlikely site of fascination and a rare kind of beauty, as through his lens we are allowed to see what can become beguiling about man’s destruction of the natural world. Out of the ashes of the dying environment, man builds something new and something attractive in his own eye. The elegance of swaying trees evolves into the intricate webs of telephone wires, and so on.

What Antonioni has created here is his own version of humanity’s post-apocalypse: one not occupied by the living dead or Cormac McCarthy’s roaming cannibals, but one world simply replaced by another – nature by industry. The apocalypse here isn’t a single cataclysmic event, but a gradual process of change in our surrounding landscapes. It is in this respect that I take back one of the adjectives I used earlier in this article: “dehumanization.” Instead, Antonioni presents mankind’s progression into modernity and his domination of 20th century industry as “purely human,” something more utopically human than nature itself, for it is with industry and not with nature that man retains complete control.

Antonioni’s vision of the post-apocalypse seems frighteningly likely and startlingly immediate because we seem to be already there. We have no nuclear war or zombies to fear in the future, we instead have to deal with what is already upon us: a world that has replaced bark and earth with iron and metal. But as “frightening” and “startling” are inappropriate words here, it becomes increasingly clear that we in many ways lack the vocabulary to assess a film like Red Desert, for Antonioni has rendered what we typically think as unsightly into something magnetic, and not by somehow conveniently morphing the appearance of industry into the confines of traditional standards of beauty, but instead by framing industry how it is and somehow capturing what comes across as the inherent beauty of artifice that has existed all along. This is not a eulogy to the poetics of nature, but an embrace of a new and inevitable reality. It’s not anti-industry or anti-modernization, and this film refuses to give into the infinite, misdirecting tunnels of nostalgia of an age long past. It never becomes apparent that something has been lost in the modernizing process until the breathtaking “red desert” sequence late in the film, which itself is not a nostalgic look back at nature as much as it is a folktale of lost history.

Post-Post-War and Post-Sex

Mark Le Fanu contextualizes Red Desert as a postwar Italian film twenty years after the fact, and this assessment provides a quite appropriate and illuminating pathway to understanding the film: it’s a film that has come to terms with a postwar reality, a new world order not of fascism but of neo-capitalism, and not of the corporate monarchy variety that we know today, but a more illusory and enigmatic capitalism (endless producing, but the products themselves are nowhere to be seen). The ruins of post-WWII Italy have here been replaced by factories that imply the existence of a working or middle class, but this – like the product itself – also remains unseen. Unlike Alain Resnais’ explorations of postwar trauma in France, Antonioni replaces the trauma with an acceptance of the ever-present present, leaving trauma in the shadows of neo-realism.

But just as Red Desert represents a turning point in the Italian postwar film, it also engages quite subversively with one of the most identifiable aspects of modern European art filmmaking: depicting the sexual revolution. Antonioni would go on to make Blow-Up and Zabriskie Point after this, but I don’t think either of these films have aged well as products of the counterculture; intentionally or not, they seem to be representations of an empty commodification of that subculture rather than a genuine response to, examination of, or partner of it. Red Desert, however, perfectly sums up the sexual revolution’s place amongst the inevitable future in the lengthy sequence in the cabin on the dock, featuring an orgy that continually threatens to take place but never quite commences, residing itself instead to flirtatious encounters, uncomfortable non-consensual touching, and an odd aftertaste of what-could-have-been. Arguably the film’s only scene of real cynicism, it’s as if the entire sexual revolution could be summed up in this single encounter amongst six or seven people on a bed as it moves from the tease of a liberating freedom to inspired sexual openness to a loss of identity and finally to a never-realized climax (keep in mind that Western Europe’s sexual revolution took place earlier than America’s, and was hardly so revolutionary or immediate is it didn’t occur with such simultaneity).


Slavoj Zizek, everybody’s favorite academic provocateur and contemporary cultural theorist superstar, gave a lecture in Astra Taylor’s documentary Examined Life about how garbage and the acceptance of the existence of junk, rather than nature, will have to become the new utopian symbol of an ideal reality in order for man to functionally exist in the future and cope with its conditions. Here is Zizek’s segment:

Had Antonioni been alive to see Zizek’s speech, I’m sure that, with Red Desert as evidence, he would agree. But for Antonioni, it is not the junk itself that is the new utopian reality, but the picturesque industrial receptacles that contain it.