Colour splashes on a black and white landscape
A restored print of the starkly beautiful may also help restore the reputation of its neglected auteur, writes Tara Brady
FOR MUCH of the last century Michelangelo Antonioni was listed alongside Bergman, Ford, Hawks, Renoir, Mizoguchi and Kurosawa as one of cinema’s great masters. By the 1990s, however, the Italian director’s standing was on the wane.
Younger film-makers, with the exception of Todd Haynes, no longer studied Antonioni’s signature mediumlong shot. More tellingly, L’Avventura (1960), once a staple feature of any canon claiming to represent the greatest films of all time, had started to slip down the polls. Its companion pieces, La Notte (1961) and L’Eclisse (1962), are now, accordingly, almost as obscure as Antonioni’s lesser-spotted early neorealist films.
The director’s death in 2007 failed to inspire a flurry of interest in the back catalogue. Beyond the Clouds (1995), his final film, neither won new converts nor felt like a real Antonioni picture. (In fact, it was co-directed by WimWenders.)
Hence this pristine, restored version of Red Desert (1964) arrives to mark the centenary of the film-maker’s birth and, we hope, to restore some of the lustre to Antonioni’s once glorious reputation.
His fourth collaboration with muse and one-time lover Monica Vitti is characterised by dwelling: dwelling on geographical places, on states of mind, on angular architecture. Vitti’s Giuliana cannot shake a feeling of dislocation: even her son is capable of playing callous pranks on her. Carlo Di Palma’s camera similarly lingers on the factories and smoking stacks of Italy’s economic miracle to post-apocalyptic effect. The tone is relentlessly listless and defeated.
As Guiliana wanders around in entropic distress, desperate to hide her increasingly fragile mental state from her wealthy industrialist husband (Carlo Chionetti), she meets Corrado (Richard Harris), a businessman who has seemingly adapted successfully to the new post-human, petrochemical produced landscape.Might he be a soul mate? Or might he only be after one thing?
Antonioni finds a strange poetry in the mental anguish and noisy factories. This was the director’s first colour film and, in keeping with the title, there are splashes of primary pigments – red petrol drums, yellow pollution – dotted across each tableau.
Although much of the dialogue sounds dated (“You wonder what to look at; I wonder how to live”), time has been kinder to Red Desert than to the occasionally groovy trilogy that preceded it or the vaguely psychedelic films (the exploding televisions of Zabriskie Point, anyone?) that followed.
“We are all separate”, sighs Vitti in history’s neatest summation of Antonioni’s existential oeuvre. No wonder Ingmar Bergman complained that the Italian was just too darned depressing for his tastes.
There is no mention of the economic travails in this unnecessarily austere documentary, but, within minutes, it becomes clear where all the loot has gone. Each year, the chef closed his restaurant for six months to allow a staff of 12,000 (or so it seems) to prod mushrooms, inflate crayfish and smear frogspawn on playing cards. Only then would the menu be placed before a relatively tiny band of paying customers.
It is, even for those suspicious of luxury culture, an interesting topic for a documentary. Unfortunately, as if cooking a particularly delicate soufflé, Gereon Wetzel has elected to sit way back and make no impositions upon the ingredients.
We learn almost nothing about the personalities involved. Wandering randomly in and out of the frame, the chefs shift from one dish to the next without allowing us to follow any project from inception to completion. Nobody wanted a highbrow version of the The F Word, but a tad more structure would have been welcome.
That said, there are enough outbreaks of culinary weirdness to keep true enthusiasts distracted. Marvel as the chefs carefully photograph wisps of delicately arranged cartilage or brown puddles of expensive grease. Ponder the puzzling suggestion that all an experimental dish requires is a little touch of “maltodextrin”. Despite Wertzel’s best efforts (or lack of same), the film ends up just about sating the palate.
Still, I’m not sure I fancy the canapé of chicken “skin and tendons”. However did elBulli’ go broke?
An Italian state of mind: the original release poster for Red Desert