Ever since a car accident, Giuliana (Monica Vitti) has suffered from depression, but she is reluctant to admit it to anybody, least of all her husband Ugo (Carlo Chionetti). He is a boss at the oil refinery, and their home is on the grounds of the building, meaning the only landscape Giuliana gets to see day by day is one of either industrialisation or desolation. Being a housewife, she doesn't get to see much else in her life, and even looking after her young son fails to offer her much satisfaction. And then a colleague of her husband's, engineer Corrado Zeller (Richard Harris), enters her life...
Whether that is much of an improvement is left for us to ponder, although Giuliana does reach some kind of recovery by the end, mostly by acceptance of her lot in life. Which makes The Red Desert, or Il deserto rosso if you're Italian, all the more frustrating: not because its writer and director Michelangelo Antonioni renders the whole thing so obscure you wonder if even he knew what he was on about this time around, but because his heroine's reaction to her miserable existence is utterly reasonable, and yet we're supposed to think there's something wrong with her.
If anything, she's the sanest of all of the characters, sure, she has her quirks - although Vitti falls short of actually twitching, though, that would mean too much in the way of action - but you can totally understand why this ghastly location she is forced to spend her days in thanks to what appears to be a loveless marriage has sent in into her deep dejection. As I say, there's not much physical occuring here, which makes it all the more curious that Antonioni wanted Richard Harris for his film, that most physical of performers who spends his time onscreen looking bemused at best, and utterly out of place at worst.
Why the director wanted the Irish star for his film other than the fact that his fame was on the rise is a mystery, and being dubbed into Italian doesn't help much for an actor whose distinctive tones were very much part of his persona. Nevertheless, because the script demands it, Giuliana falls for Corrado, for reasons best known to herself although it could simply be desperation for somebody to talk to - she doesn't even seem to have any friends, never mind a shoulder to cry on when her mind is at its most stressed. Corrado listens and is a patient presence in her life, yet she is still keeping all her emotions bottled up inside, and it's not until the end that she really admits to anybody how she realy feels.
Not to her husband or Corrado, but to a foreign sailor who can't understand her anyway: how cruel is Antonioni going to be? There are compensations for all this ill-treatment of the lead character, and they are largely visual as this was the auteur's first film in colour. He takes to his new pallette like a duck to (polluted) water, shooting the scenery in gunmetal greys, with every so often an aggressive red to assault Giuliana's senses, or more rarely a calm, comforting blue for her occasional refuge, such as the ocean in a fairy tale she tells her son, but as with most of the rest of this it's open to interpretation as to precisely the meaning of what she has said might be. This is not a film where the protagonist unburdens themself to a sympathetic other party, however much she needs to, but we do leave the film feeling as if she might pull through psychologically; despite this, you're thinking rather you than me living in that level of angst, thank you very much. Music by Giovanni Fusco.
Although he divided audiences into those who found his mysterious works pretentious or fascinatingly enigmatic, this celebrated Italian writer and director was always interesting and stylish. L'Avventura in 1960 was his international breakthrough although he'd been directing since the forties, and he followed it with La Notte, L'Eclisse, The Red Desert, Blowup (perhaps his most famous film), Zabriskie Point (with its explosive climax), The Passenger and Identification of a Woman among others. He even continued working after serious stroke, Beyond the Clouds being his best known film from his later period.