By Paula R. Stiles
Il deserto rosso (Red Desert) (1964). Director: Michelangelo Antonioni. Cast: Monica Vitti, Richard Harris and Carlo Chionetti. Country: Italy.
A mentally fragile woman named Giuliana (Monica Vitti) tries to hold onto her marriage and her son in the middle of a polluted industrial port. Giuliana has been very depressed since a car accident sometime before and goes through what appears to be a cycle of nervous breakdowns, including a past hospitalization. All of her attempts to break free of this cycle are in vain. It might have something to do with the fact that she’s stuck with her son and distant husband Ugo (Carlon Chionetti) in one of the ugliest industrial disaster areas since 1950s London.
Perpetually disheveled Giuliana starts a half-baked affair with a mercenary engineer, Corrado Zeller (Richard Harris), but, predictably, that all goes sideways, too, and she ends up worse off than before. The ending is weirdly upbeat, considering it’s fairly obvious she’s on the downswing of yet another huge meltdown as the credits roll. The director and lead actress delicately, but firmly, put us inside her head and in her POV for the entire run of the film, much like literary forerunner “The Yellow Wallpaper.”
The story is listed on IMDB as a drama, but it’s really dystopian mundane SF, shading into psychological horror, especially toward the end (the humming during the seduction scene and the shrieking strings at the end, which evoke the aliens of Five Million Years to Earth). Sound is used very effectively to scare the hell out of you – check out the fog scene and its muted noises that muffle all sources and make everything mysterious. The time period is left intentionally vague. The trashed environment is given a clear scientific base and puts the film squarely in the same group as John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar and The Sheep Look Up, with apparent inspiration from Rachel Carson’s environmentalist classic Silent Spring. The seaside aspect also evokes J.G. Ballard’s disaster novels. And then there’s that odd, unfinished story Giuliana tells her son about a young girl alone on a beach, who hears a woman’s singing from an unknown source.
Giuliana strives to connect with those around her, but they either reject her or cynically take advantage of her instability. Even her young son fakes having polio at one point for no apparent reason, while her husband abandons her to travel for work. Innocence and spousal loyalty are sinister, too. People act irrationally, but pretend that they don’t, which makes the heroine’s paranoia seem more understandable. She’s the only one, it seems, willing to acknowledge that something is hideously, globally wrong with their surroundings.
Unlike the way it would play out in an American film, Antonioni makes no attempt to leaven Giuliana’s suffering with some kind of false hope of a whole and untouched reality, or even a happy fantasy, that she can find and cling to (no red and blue pills here). She truly is mentally ill, truly unstable, truly hallucinating. And yet, she’s also a Cassandra, a canary trying to warn the coal miners. It’s kind of like if someone had actually done something plotwise with the post-apocalyptic world you see in films like Hardware besides making it a lurid backdrop.
In scenes like the one in the fog, I can’t help thinking of the Pod people from Invasion of the Body Snatchers, where Giuliana is not in danger from her own problems, but from the metaphorical zombies that surround her and have singled her out as Not One of Them. It’s as if the polluted surroundings are poisoning all the characters. Everything and everyone are infected, but only Giuliana has remained human enough to notice the soul-sucking going on.
One could argue (successfully) that Antonioni’s work is not at all conventional cinematic science fiction (even 1970s sci-fi, which could get pretty dark) and it’s not. But it is science fiction (and horror) nonetheless, in the truest sense evoked by Mary Shelley. The environment is being destroyed and, like a sinking ship, it’s taking down the human rats that have infested it and made it rotten. They are adversely affected in various ways that go far beyond PCBs and heavy metals. The scientific concept of a polluted environment that directly poisons humans – but psychologically – is like a precursor to M. Night Shyalaman’s The Happening, except that Red Desert is actually good.