Antonioni's first colour film is a visual treat. Industrial structures are composed into symphonies towering above Monica Vitti – the protagonist and stand-in for the alienation created by modernity. The film opens on out-of-focus shots of what looks like an energy plant, queasy drones on the soundtrack. The mood is unnatural, inauthentic. Our machines have separated us from the real world. A female voice slowly fades in amongst the electronics – the angelic battling it out with the mechanical. At the end of the film, Monica Vitti tells a bedtime story to her son about a young girl living a carefree life on an island. One day a ship appears and she swims towards it, but it floats away. The girl then starts to hear a beautiful female voice among the rocks, but she cannot find the singer. The parable feels like a microcosm of the film's world, in which people are both attracted to and repulsed by factories and globalisation, and are constantly disappointed in their search for the divine.
Antonioni apparently didn't have precisely this intention, wanting to convey the "poetry" of the industrial landscape. In that he succeeds brilliantly – the images are sumptuous. But the familiar themes of the breakdown of communication between people and the damage caused by "ways of life that are by now out-of-date", remain. The dialogue is characteristically elliptical and frustrating – barely rising out of nonsense some of the time. But that is to the film's purpose, and so forgivable. Monica Vitti herself has to do more work here than in The Adventure and The Night (the other two Antonioni films I've seen), and she acquits herself as well as someone can doing the crazy stuff Antonioni wants. Even the obviously overdubbed dialogue works to establish a sense of unreality to the proceedings (although this is a typical feature of Italian movies of the period).
Vitti's impact in The Night is greater, and that film's shape and coherence is more admirable than the meandering here. But the images Antonioni has crafted in Red Desert is something new and thrilling in cinema, and the film deserves to be seen for that reason alone.