Red Desert (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1964)

After watching Anton Corbijn’s The American, my interest in delving into Antonioni’s work grew – after all, there are plenty of thematic and stylistic similarities between The American and the other Antonioni I saw, Blow Up. But like Blow Up, Red Desert comes up a bit short in terms of meeting my expectations, particularly when I’m using Corbijn’s film as a marker.

What Red Desert does have going for it is its sense of grandiose alienation and a performance grounded by the superb Monica Vitti. As Giuliana, Vitti towers over the richly detailed atmosphere. Her performance bares an eerie similarity to Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence – both play despairing wives with an undisclosed medical ailment, both vying for position in an increasingly dehumanizing world. Vitti tones it down though, instead aiming for something less transparent as Antonioni develops an atmosphere of ecological dread and blistering alienation.

And what an atmosphere – if Corbijn has one fault in his attempt to mimic Antonioni, it’s that even his impressive visual sense lacks Antonioni’s consistency.  Red Desert’s opening sees Giuliana’s husband, an electrical engineer, touring a factory. The sheer scope of the scenery, both in-doors and out is impressive – not just for its rich texture, but for its symbolic resonance that echoes throughout the picture. We see a green fog overtake the surroundings of the factory. As Giuliana distances herself from her husband’s work, she finds the streets near the Ravenna factory to be colorless and bland – her green coat often being the only source of vibrancy in a particular frame. The sounds of the factory seem to follow characters wherever they go, even as they attempt to escape Red Desert’s universe of overt subordination.  Vitti and her husband join a sexually promiscuous party in a scene that one can assume to be pulsating, is overshadowed by the foreboding sound of fog horns and the increasingly thick level of smog daring to consume Red Desert’s characters.

Despite my admiration for the craft of the film, Red Desert falters in its sense of pacing. Blow Up was similar – I hate to be the kind of person to claim a film is too slow, but Antonioni’s deliberate pacing makes it hard to embrace his films on an emotional level. There’s an interesting overhead shot in Corbijn’s The American, where George Clooney drives through a constantly swerving stretch of road. The shot holds until Clooney makes it to the half way point in the road and cuts. I’ve read suggestions that had Antonioni directed that same scene, he would have held the shot all the way through, up until Clooney’s vehicle was outside of the frame. Red Desert is the sort of film that embraces that logic – Antonioni holds things for too long, overstaying his welcome by prolonging an effect that reached its apex midway through a frame.

Rating: 5/10

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Jacques Demy, 1964)

Musicals can be hit or miss for me. The genre’s insistence to break into song and dance can make it difficult to embrace the narrative, as it sometimes removes me from the context of the situation itself. So it’s interesting to see a film that’s nothing but song – a film where dialogue is spoken lyrically with a musical backdrop. Never seeing a film that approaches this style before, I was taken aback by how much I enjoyed it. There was something surprisingly natural about the way the dialogue and visuals flow together, to the point that it’s hard to imagine The Umbrellas of Cherbourg existing as anything but a musical.

Demy’s film opens with a wonderful credits sequence – an overhead shot sees passing pedestrians with their umbrellas as they walk to their destination. It’s simple, it’s visually astute, and most of all, it’s pleasing. We then move on to our character - Guy Foucher (Nino Castelnuovo) is a mechanic and he’s in love with a young girl named Geneviève Emery (Catherine Deneuve). Demy defines his characters as concisely as possible, giving them just enough detail to flesh them out while minimizing unnecessary (from a narrative standpoint) exposition. Guy wants to marry Geneviève, but they face the sort of traditional obstacles that comes with a melodrama – Geneviève’s mother thinks she is too young, while Guy is juggling the responsibility of caring for his ailing godmother and his impending draft notice. And as Guy and Geneviève begin to prepare for their wedding, Guy receives his notice, putting everything between them on hold.

The trouble is that he leaves Geneviève pregnant.  Geneviève now has to decide between waiting for Guy while taking care of the child on her own, or to accept the offer of a prosperous jewelry merchant who becomes smitten with her. The drama! Normally, I would be turned off by such theatrics and melodrama, but given the candy-coated atmosphere and singing, it all seems to work in this alternate reality. Demy obviously admires the traditional melodrama of Hollywood pictures, and by adapting the general idea of it to his musical, he revitalizes the age-old story into something pulsating and new. I won’t argue that The Umbrellas of Cherbourg follows a very obvious and straightforward trajectory, so much that it’s conceivable to predict the ending by the end of the first act, but that knowledge didn’t hinder the film’s energy. You give yourself to the nostalgia and cuteness of its world to the point that it make its faults seem less glaring.

Rating: 8/10