Phenomenology and “Red Desert”

Film critic Stanley Kauffman relates the following conversation that took place over dinner with Michelangelo Antonioni and Monica Vitti during his visit to Rome in 1964, prior to the release of Red Desert (Il Deserto Rosso, 1964):
“After an hour or so of chat as animated as my Italian will permit, I ask, ‘Well, what about Red Desert? Antonioni smiles broadly, makes a sweeping gesture, and announces with the self-satire of the confident, ‘Un film stupendo!’” [1]
This was another instance of Antonioni’s spare but remarkably revealing comments concerning his own work, for critical reaction in this country has generally been one of stupefaction. There can be no doubt that behind the film is a great degree of cinematic control and seriousness of purpose, but there appears to be confusion as to what Antonioni is actually getting at. His three previous films had been thin in terms of the narrative content but rich in terms of the depth of the interpersonal relationships. Red Desert on the other hand, lacks even the substance of human relationships. John Simon was thus moved to write that
“the color is so eloquent and thought-provoking that it emphasizes the vacuousness of what it envelops: plot, character, dialogue.” [2]
Similarly Dwight MacDonald observed that
“the thinness of the subject matter . . . contrasts with the brilliance with which it is expressed to the eye. . . And the farther he goes in that direction [towards abstraction] without giving up the conventional kind of plot, as in his last two films, the more obtrusive is the discrepancy between the feebleness of what he has to say and the cinematic power with which he says it.” [3]
When one embarks upon the expedition of exegesis, all sorts of objections are immediately raised – particularly in connection with a visual artist like Antonioni. One is warned that the work of art is just there – take it or leave it. The feeling is that the expository analysis is ultimately reductionist and that to intellectualize a work of art is to rob it of its aesthetic mode of communication. To this feeling I am sympathetic, inasmuch as I agree that Antonioni’s film is not overtly symbolic; it does not stand for something else. Yet for one to integrate one’s experience of viewing Red Desert with his other experiences, a certain amount of analysis and systematization is necessary. Therefore my comments concerning Red Desert are to be directed not so much in terms of an explanation (or, at least, in the commonly understood sense of that word) but more in terms of an aid to relating the experience of watching Red Desert to other modes of experience.

There have been typically two ways of interpreting Red Desert. The first, and one that was seized upon by those with a generally Marxist critical disposition, was to view the film as an attack on modern society and as a condemnation of the ravages wreaked upon man by modern technology. This critical approach was refuted by Antonioni just after the film's release when he was interviewed by Jean Luc Godard:
“It simplifies things too much (as many have done) to say that I accuse this inhuman, industrialized world in which the individual is crushed and led to neurosis. My intention, on the contrary, . . . was to translate the beauty of this world, in which even the factories can be beautiful.” [4]
The second manner in which this film has been considered is as a psychological case study of a neurotic girl. While this is ostensibly true, it is not particularly fruitful to think of the film in terms of psychology as it is conventionally practiced. Neither of these approaches is without some validity, but they fail to recognize the extent to which Red Desert probes the fundamental nature of experience. I suggest, instead, that Red Desert be looked upon as a cinematic exploration of the phenomenology of perception. In particular, certain ideas of Soren Kierkegaard, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Martin Heidegger can be perceived within the cinematic structure of Antonioni’s film, and these ideas lie outside the realm of traditional film-critical categories.

The breakthrough associated with Kierkegaard was the understanding of the opposition between what is called “essence” and “existence”. That is, a thing’s essence is that which determines it and distinguishes it from others; existence is that which distinguishes the thing from nothing. Existence is that which brings the thing to realization; essences are interrelations, a thing’s essence relates it to other things. In this way a system of essences can be contemplated by the mind entirely separate from existence – an abstract, universal, timeless systems of inactive essences. Modern philosophy from Descartes onward has had a strong bias towards essentialism, and this was culminated in the Hegelian system. It was Kierkegaard who recognized that philosophy concentrated exclusively on essentialism was incapable of accounting for individuation, contingency, time, and will –
“What confuses the whole doctrine about being in logic is that people do not notice that they are always operating with the ‘concept’ existence. But the concept existence is an ideality and the difficulty is, of course, whether existence can be reduced to a concept. . .

But Existence corresponds to the individual things, the individual, which even Aristotle teaches lies outside or least cannot be reduced to a concept. . . an individual man has not, after all, a conceptual existence.” [5]
Thus it was that by considering the concrete nature of existence, which he felt Hegelianism overlooked, Kierkegaard introduced the related idea of nothingness. This attack on Hegelianism was and is of considerable consequence simply because most of the established thought patterns of the present age are founded upon Hegel’s thought. In particular all the social sciences are rooted in Hegelian essentialism, and this is especially significant for an existential critic of essentialism like Kierkegaard, who would charge that it is precisely in the social sphere that the scientific method of essentialism is inadequate. In other words the scientific method applied to objects in the world may have its uses, but it does not render an accurate accounting of our experiences of objects nor of our experience of each other – each of which can only be adequately dealt with by a philosophy that considers existence as well as essence. The breakdown of classical philosophy has, say the existential critics, brought about a mass neurosis, causing people to be regarded as dehumanized conceptual quantities and leaving the individual with a feeling of homelessness and boredom. It is this malaise that Antonioni has dealt with in Red Desert, and the psychotic condition of Giuliana is an externalization of that which is implicitly present in a great number of troubled souls.
It is now evident why the above-mentioned conventional critical approaches to Red Desert are inadequate. A Marxist attack on modern capitalistic technology is founded on Hegelian principles and thus is still essentialist. Similarly a psychological case study is a social scientific treatment that also remains within the confines of pure essentialism. Antonioni’s film, however, is existentialist, and thus of a different nature altogether. [6]

Now to express the idea of existence opposed to essence verbally is difficult, since it is the nature of language to deal with essences. For example the word “tree” does not do justice to this tree, and, in fact, no matter how detailed I become in my description of this tree I can never adequately convey the this-ness, as it were, of the tree. Nevertheless post-Kierkegaardians, like Sartre and Heidegger, have invested great effort to express their philosophies, which involve important ontological distinctions, in terms of written language [7]. Consider the following passages from Sartre’s novel, Nausea:
I lean my hand on the seat, but pull it back hurriedly: it exists. This thing I’m sitting on, leaning my hand on, is called a seat. They made it purposely for people to sit on, they took leather, springs, and cloth, and they went to work with the idea of making a seat, and when they finished, that was what they had made. The had carried it here, into this car, and the car is now rolling and jolting with its rattling windows, carrying this red thing in its bosom. I murmur: “It’s a seat,” a little like an exorcism. But the word stays on my lips: it refuses to go and put itself on the thing. It stays what it is, with its red plush, thousands of little red paws in the air, all still, little dead paws. This enormous belly turned upward, bleeding, inflated – bloated with all its dead paws, this belly floating in this car, in this grey sky, is not a seat. It could just as well be a dead donkey tossed about in the great grey river, a river of floods; and I could be sitting on the donkey’s belly, my feet dangling in the clear water. Things are divorced from their names. They are there, grotesque, headstrong, gigantic, and it seems ridiculous to call them seats or say anything at all about them: I am in the midst of things, nameless things. Alone, without words, defenseless, they surround me, are beneath me, behind me, above me. . . . .

[later] I’m in the park. I drop into a bench between great black tree-trunks, between the black, knotty hands reaching towards the sky. A tree scrapes at the earth under my feet with a black nail. I would so like to let myself go, forget myself, sleep. But I can’t, I’m suffocating: existence penetrates me everywhere, through the eyes, the nose, the mouth . . .
And suddenly, suddenly, the veil is torn away, I have understood, I have seen.
. . .
So I was in the park just now. The roots of the chestnut tree were sunk in the ground just under my bench. I couldn’t remember it was a root any more. The words had vanished and with them the significance of things, their methods of use, and the feeble points of reference which men have traced on their surface. I was sitting, stooping forward, head bowed, lone in front of this black, knotty mass, entirely beastly, which frightened me. Then I had this vision.
It left me breathless. Never, until these last few days, had I understood the meaning of “existence.” . . when I believed I was thinking about it, I must believe that I was thinking nothing, my head was empty, or there was just one word in my head, the word, “to be”. Or else I was thinking . . . how can I explain it? I was thinking of belonging, I was telling myself that the sea belongs to the class of green objects, or that the green was a part of the quality of the sea. Even when I looked at things, I was miles from dreaming that they existed: they looked like scenery to me. . . . And then all of a sudden, there it was, clear as day: existence had suddenly unveiled itself. It had lost the harmless look of an abstract category: it was the very paste of things, this root was kneaded into existence. Or rather the root, the park gates, the bench, the sparse grass, all that had vanished: the diversity of things, their individuality, were only an appearance, a veneer. This veneer had melted, leaving soft, monstrous masses, all in disorder – naked, in a frightful, obscene nakedness.
I kept myself from making the slightest movement, but I didn’t need to move in order to see, behind the trees, the blue columns and the lamp-posts of the bankstand and the Velleda in the midst of a mountain of laurel. All these objects . . . How can I explain? They inconvenience me: I would have liked them to exist less strongly, more dryly, in a more abstract way, with more reserve. The chestnut tree pressed itself against my eyes. Green rust covered it half-way up; the bark, black and swollen, looked like boiled leather . . .
. . .
In the way: it was the only relationship I could establish between these trees, these gates, these stones. In vain I tried to count the chestnut trees, to locate them by their relationship to the Velleda, to compare their height with the height of the plane trees: each of them escaped the relationship in which I tried to enclose it, isolated itself, and overflowed. Of these relations (which I insisted on maintaining in order to delay the crumbling of the human world, measures, quantities, and directions) – I felt myself to be the arbitrator; they no longer had their teeth into things. . . .
. . .
In vain to repeat: “this is a root” – it didn’t work any more. I saw clearly that you could not pass from its function as a root, as a breathing pump, to that, to this hard and compact skin of a sea lion, to this oily, callous, headstrong look. The function explained nothing: it allowed you to understand generally that it was a root, but not that one at all. This root, with its colour, shape, its congealed movement, was . . . below all explanation. . .
. . .
Suspicious: that’s what they were, the sounds, the smells, the tastes. When they ran quickly under your nose like startled hares and you didn’t pay too much attention, you might believe them to be simple and reassuring, you might believe that there was real blue in the world, real read, a real perfume of almonds or violets. But as soon as you held on to them for an instant, this feeling of comfort and security gave way to a deep uneasiness: colours, tastes, and smells were never real, never themselves and nothing but themselves. The simplest, most indefinable quality had too much content, in relation to itself, in its heart. . . . But no necessary being can explain existence: contingency is not a delusion, a probability which can be dissipated; it is the absolute, consequently, the perfect free gift. All is free, this park, this city, and myself. When you realize that, it turns your heart upside down and everything begins to float. . . .
. . .
I was no longer in Bouville, I was nowhere, I was floating. I was not surprised, I new it was the World, the naked World suddenly revealing itself, and I choked with rage at this gross absurd being. . . I shouted, “filth! what rotten filth!”, and shook myself to get ride of this sticky filth, but it held fast, and there was so much, tons and tons of existence, endless: I stifled at the depths of this immense weariness. [8]
Sartre is striving to describe a particular manner of perceiving entities, a particular awareness with which essentialism cannot cope. The character Roquentin’s feeling of nausea in Sartre’s novel is almost exactly mirrored by Giuliana’s anxiety in Red Desert. The threatening forces are not those of “technology”, but just things-in-themselves. The refuse in front of which Giuliana eats her sandwich in an early scene is not to be viewed as industrial waste, but as undefined, unexplained matter, analogous to the black root of Roquentin’s chestnut tree. And, in fact, Antonioni’s effort to bring us to Giuliana’s perceptual state by the use of cinematography is more directly successful than Sartre’s, since Sartre can only appeal to our recollections of possibly similar experiences when he expresses himself in words.

One of the techniques Antonioni used was to shoot much of the film in which Giuliana's perspective is in focus with very long (in focal length) lenses. This created a very short depth of field that results in several psychological effects. For one thing it is closer to our actual visual perception, since only a small part of what we take in in a glance is in focus. Moreover the objects that are seen out of focus tend to lose the specific functionality that we usually associate with them. When objects are seen out of focus, their outlines fuzzy and their colors blending in with color of neighboring objects, they begin to lose their conventional identities and become abstract entities. In the previously mentioned interview with Godard, Antonioni commented on the relation of Red Desert to his previous films,
“It is a less realistic film, from a figurative point of view. That is to say, it is realistic in a different way. For example, I used the telescopic lens a great deal in order not to have a deep focus, which is for good reason an indispensable element of realism. What interests me now is to place the character in contact with things, for it is things, objects, and materials that have weight today.” [9]
Thus it is not surprising that Red Desert lacks depth in its presentation of interpersonal relationships. What are significant are Giuliana’s relationship with and awareness of things – even the faces of actors like Richard Harris are deliberately muted and de-emphasized in relation to the surroundings.

Another technique Antonioni used to represent the altered consciousness was his manipulation of color. This is the most celebrated aspect of the film, but critics err when they assume that Antonioni was trying to create dynamic colorist painting. As he himself says:
“There is, in this film, no pictorial research at all; we are far from painting, it seems to me. . . . Moreover, I had never thought about color in itself. The film was born in colors, but I always thought, first of all, of the thing to be said – this is natural – and thus aided the expression by means of the color. I never thought: I’m going to put a blue next to a maroon.” [10]
The use of color was specifically intended to enhance the perceptual awareness of things. The bright, pure colors serve to detach things from their conventional environment and create new, abstract relationships with other unrelated colored objects.

Perhaps the most significant of Antonioni’s techniques was his treatment of screen kinetics. This effect necessitates on the part of the viewer a continuous struggle to orient himself with respect to the depicted environment. Elliptical action and oblique camera angles are employed not to emphasize dramatic moments but as a continuous condition of perceptual reality. An illustrative scene is the visit of Corrado and Giuliana to the radar installation [11]. A long row of skeletal radio telescope towers is the primary background material, and the viewer is continuously forced to orient the camera position and the characters with respect to his knowledge of the tower geometry. During the visit several important changes of position by the characters are omitted by Antonioni. Thus the struggle with orientation with respect to these huge, abstract edifices is forced upon the viewer, bringing him in greater sympathy with Giuliana’s struggling awareness of things. In addition Antonioni frequently uses slow disclosure by beginning a scene with a detail of an object. In almost every case the object is not seen for what it normally is, but as a quasi-abstract form. When asked by Godard about this practice, Antonioni explained that
“It’s a way of approaching the character in terms of things rather than by means of her life. Her life, basically interests me only relatively.” [12]
This is an extremely revealing statement, for it emphasizes the difference between Antonioni’s approach and the typically essentialist approach of a psychoanalyst. A psychoanalyst would be interested in nothing but her life – except that it would be considered in terms of conceptual events. The uniqueness of her perceptual awareness would be overlooked, and it is precisely this with which Antonioni is concerned.

I have so far only mentioned the visual stylistics with which Antonioni expressed himself, but of course the characters reveal themselves by what they say as well. Ugo, Giuliana’s husband, is a kindly person, but is also the ultimate technician. As such he can be thought of as purely essentialist. A characteristic moment for him is when he shows his son the spinning yellow toy. As an explanation of the toy’s behaviour, Ugo explains that it has a gyroscope in it, the same kind things used to steer ships. This is an utterly reductionist statement, reducing things to concepts. Though the statement is correct, one feels annoyed, given the context within the film, with the complacent disregard for existence implicit in the statement. Immediately afterwards, there is a cut to a large ship, and the visual impact of it seems to bring out the poverty of Ugo’s description. Giuliana, as already stated, is extremely sensitive to and feels threatened by the existence of the concrete other, just as Roquentin did in Nausea. She tells a Turkish sailor, “if you prick me, you don’t suffer,” thereby trying to convey her feeling of separateness and isolation. At another point she says to Corrado,
“The sea is never still. I can’t look at the sea for long and not lose interest in what happens on land.”
The sea is for her not a symbol or metaphor but an ever-changing, impossible to pin down “thing”. For her it is analogous to the chestnut tree root that brings on the “nausea”, since its uncategorizable nature thrusts its existence upon Giuliana’s consciousness.

Giuliana’s story that she tells her son is further elaboration of her psyche. The entire scene is shot in bright Hollywood style "technicolor”, the depth of field is increased to that of typical films, and the screen kinetics are completely straightforward. The viewer has to do none of the struggling with reality that is necessary in the other scenes; one feels very comfortable with the environment depicted. This scene acts to convey Giuliana’s romantic yearnings for her formerly naive, untroubled consciousness that was at home in the world. All the colors belong to nature, they seem to belong, as opposed to Giuliana’s real life where colors seem to force themselves on one’s awareness. Rocks are seen not as brute existences, but in terms of human forms. The world has an existence for her – it even sings to her. But this feeling of oneness with the world is only fable; it is not possible in her real existence.

The character of Corrado is somewhat problematical. He appears discontented with his existence and feels a sympathy for Giuliana’s problems. At one point he says to her,
“You wonder what to look at, and I wonder where to live. It’s the same thing.”
In fact it’s not the same thing at all. Giuliana’s sensitivity is more developed than his. Corrado is primarily an essentialist who feels that by sufficient manipulation of the external world of objects he can eventually find fulfillment. He wishes to have adventures, like his expedition to Patagonia, hoping that change of his external environment will bring about satisfaction. Giuliana contrasts her own feelings with his when she tells him, “If I were to leave, I’d take everything.” That is to say, the few things with which she has managed to feel somewhat comfortable (as opposed to the great mass of objects by which she feels threatened) are indispensable. She must cling to them as a means of protection. Corrado, the essentialist, living in a world devoid of content is constantly looking for the external stimulus. Giuliana, on the other hand lives in a world too full of existence. She would like somehow to demystify and humanize her surroundings.

In the final scene Giuliana tells her son that birds survive by learning not to go near the poison waste gas of the plant. In other words she is resolving to be like everybody else. While this may be the advisable course for someone who is on the brink of insanity, the larger questions concerning the inadequacy of our conventional thought patterns to deal with existence are left unanswered. Is the lesson we are to learn from Roquentin and Giuliana that to see beyond the veil leads to madness? Perhaps so, as long as madness is defined in terms of the conventional thought patterns. At any rate the extraordinary thing about Red Desert is that it deals with profound aspects of existence in an immediate fashion. It concerns the phenomenology of perception and expresses itself by means of perception. The gestalt psychologist Rudolph Arnheim has made studies to show that all thinking is structurally similar to visual perception, and “truly productive thinking in whatever area of cognition takes place in the realm of imagery” [13]. If this is true, then Red Desert may be a more direct and unadulterated presentation of existential ideas of Sartre than that philosopher’s own writing was.

  1. Kauffman, S., A World on Film, Dell (1966), p. 407.
  2. Simon, J., Private Screenings, Berkeley (1967), p. 177.
  3. Macdonald, D., On Movies, Berkeley (19600, PP. 375-376.
  4. Sarris, A., (ed.), Interviews with Film Directors, Avon (1967), p. 23.
  5. Kierkegaard, S., The Journals of Soren Kierkegaard, Oxford (1938), p. 147.
  6. I have taken the pains to specify what I mean by “existentialist”, since casual usage has undermined its meaning.
  7. In fact Heidegger came to despair of the possibility of conventional language to express the ultimate nature of existence and turned his attention to poetry as a possible avenue. Perhaps he might have profitably considered the film medium.
  8. Sartre, J.-P., Nausea, New Directions (1964), pp. 168-181.
  9. Sarris, A., op. cit., pp. 28-29.
  10. Ibid., p. 30.
  11. "The Visit to the Radar Station in Red Desert", The Film Sufi (2010),
  12. Ibid., p. 28.
  13. Arnheim, R., Visual Thinking, U. of California (1969), p. v.


Tom said...

Thanks very much for this. Very interesting.

dubonheur said...

Wow... you've brought my appreciation of this film to a whole other level. This is great stuff.

Seymour said...

This is an excellent article with many thought-provoking ideas. Thanks for posting it.

robin said...

I just watched this film for the first time, and it immediately brought to mind Nausea. Your elaboration of this connection is spot on. This without a doubt the most perceptive writing on this film I have encountered. Thanks!

ana gheorghiceanu said...

I think it was a very articulate, sensitive -doubled by the proper theoretical background - approach to Antonioni's existential cinematography. He, indeed, captures angst,and the overwhelming presence of objects, like no one else.

emmdee said...

A brilliant essay. We just watched the film for the first time in decades, were blown away (candidate for best film ever made, and this from two non-fans of Antonioni), and went hunting around the internet for commentary, as much in order to remain in the thrall of Red Desert as to get actual info. Your essay goes beyond thought-provoking toward enlightenment. I started off resisting the "politics-psychology-existentialist" triangle as excessively either/or but you came close to convincing me entirely. Thank you!