Red Desert is the first color movie by Michelangelo Antonioni. First released in 1964, this film is indeed an extraordinary dialogue between bright chemical colors and industrial variety of greys. I don’t want to give too many indications about the plot here, and will only signal to the New Yorkers who did not see it yet or, like me who would like to re-see it, that the Brooklyn Academy of Music is currently releasing the film for another week.
What I am interesting to point out here is what I call the dark materialism that Antonioni develops all along the film to provide the perfect environment to maintain the generalized paranoia of the main character played by the superb Monica Vitti. In fact, Antonioni “fills” his image with a quasi-infinity of micro-particules that have all been influenced by human activity. The built environment is an obvious component of it, factories, antennas, modernist housing buildings, off shore rigs etc. but even what remains of the so-called nature has been corrupted and is now part of a sort of humanly produced mono-matter that seems to engulf Giulana’s body. Sounds themselves, created by the continuous processes of transformation of this matter act as an oppressive and persistent background.
However, I believe that it would be a mistake to understand the darkness of this materialism as being despised by Antonioni who would then give a moralizing vision of the successive industrial revolutions. On the contrary, he develops a creative approach that is close from one started in a contemporary period of time, the one by Bernd & Hilla Becher and their industrial photographic inventories. Few decades later, a photograph like Edward Burtynsky seems to have been greatly influenced by Antonioni and the Bechers. This approach is characterized by the expression of an ambiguity between disgust and fascination for those landscapes.
This ambiguity here is expressed in a much more powerful way than in the Bechers and Burtynsky’s work as Antonioni in his great skill of filming women -and Monica Vitti more specifically- manages to contrast this environment with Giuliana’s elegantly dressed body. The confrontation between both is violent and expresses the source of her continuous panic.
In Spinozist terms, the relations developed between the environment’s body -because once again what I have been called corrupted matter is consider as a whole in itself- and Monica Vitti’s body can be said to be “sad” as they seem to never being able to harmonize. Her body seems to be the last one uncorrupted and has to develop a dreadful fight in order to remain as such. Only the power of her imagination that seems to create an escape world in which the environment is composed by untouched beaches in a wonderful bright blue sea. Paradoxically, in reality the boats that could be considered as the means of a potential escape for her seems to constitute the ultimate barriers of this environment won by the corrupted matter. When the first one is under quarantine, the second one is inaccessible by the border of language. No material exit is therefore allowed, the fight of the matters has to continue.
To go further into the notion of dark materialism see this previous article about the symposium around Cyclonopedia organized at the New School. I recommend particularly the short lecture given by Eugene Thacker entitled Black Infinity; or, Oil Discovers Humans