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07.07.10

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Phaedra

Totally toxic

Criterion's 'Red Desert' release eerily prescient

By Michael S. Gant


Seeing the emotionally distressed Giuliana (Monica Vitti) of Michelangelo Antonioni's 1964 Red Desert staring hopelessly at a small pool of oil lapping against the banks of a river puts the viewer in mind of the Gulf of the Mexico disaster and how it is driving people to despair and even suicide.

Antonioni says in an interview extra with the new release of this Criterion DVD ($39.99), "There are aspects [of the industrial world] that I even find beautiful," but his famous film seems to find only deep anxiety in the refineries around Ravenna. Giuliana is recovering from an auto accident that has left her estranged from her husband; her illness, however, is more existential than a case of post-traumatic stress syndrome. She wanders, a lost soul, through a landscape that overwhelms her—full of looming metal pipes, long rows of metal barrels and gray empty streets. Inside, she hunches in corners and presses herself against whitewashed walls.

The Technicolor widescreen film, with cinematography by Carlo De Palma, is seductive even when the air is filled with poisonous yellow vapors from the factory smokestacks. Antonioni's eye for formal compositions captures his characters and pins them down in a hard-edged world of metal plates, conduits, storage tanks and girders. The only relief comes in a strange fairy tale that Giuliana tells her young son about a girl who lives alone on an island; these scenes are full of rapturous close-ups of sandstone outcroppings and rhythmically lapping waves on the curved beach of a tiny bay. That dream state cannot endure. At the end, Giuliana and the boy pick their way through a patch of earth so polluted that steam rises from the ground itself.

The transfer is immaculate, and this package comes with a booklet, interviews with Antonioni and Vitti, and two early Antonioni shorts.


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