The Red Desert
The Hands as Metaphysical Absence
A woman has a husband, a child and enough money to open her own shop if she wants to, yet Monica Vitti's Giuliana doesn't know what to do with her life. She talks about herself as if she is someone else and occupies spaces as if she is at the same time apart from them and preoccupied by them. If we so often talk about an assertive personality, then it might be useful to ask what we mean by this, and how Giuliana is very much the opposite. An interesting observation by Hegel here can help us. "The hand is the chief organ of corporeal possession." He adds, "This no beast possesses. And what I grasp with the hand becomes in turns the means of grasping more." Antonioni however is a great filmmaker of unassertive characters not least because of the way he shows them unable to touch things assertively. If we think of the beginning of The Eclipse, with Vitti's Vittoria toying with various objects in the flat she shares with her lover, and in the flat she will soon leave, or the unstable nymphomaniac in the early stages of La notte who touches the walls or a man as if somehow they are driftwood to which she can attach herself, we notice the director's fascination with unassertive being. It is as though Antonioni comprehends the limitations of the hands when they reflect the indecision of the body. The hand is no longer the chief organ of corporeal possession, but closer to a sensory device to understand the emotions. In Antonioni's work we sense that hands have feelings; that they need to caress rather than control the world, and we could do worse than understand Antonioni not only through the way he revolutionised narrative cinema, but also the way he radicalised the use of hands in film.
Obviously cinema has always been interested in hands, and silent movies seem often to possess a haptic quality, a sense of touch that lent itself well to melodramatic wrestling with consciousness as characters would physically touch, hug and hold each other. With sound such gestures were less important, as much of the emotional range could be conveyed by dialogue, and there was no longer the need for an expressive form that would contain the dialogue in the body: the 'sound body' could be a relatively haptically inexpressive form.
The cinema of Antonioni however returns film to elements of the silent cinema, but does so not because of the limitations of technology, but due to the limitations of the self. It is the self that cannot communicate, not the form. Antonioni must find the form with which to communicate the incommunicable, to film the ineffable. Central to this is obviously the formal innovations of metonymic colour, and the use of a camera that is willing to drift away from the apparent central point to the peripheral, which we'll discuss later. But it also resides in the body language the characters adopt, and the idea that many of his characters cannot practise Hegel's corporeal possession.
We need only think of the scene where Giuliana is in the shop that she hopes to open and Richard Harris's character, Corrado, comes to visit. She has no physical relationship with the space, and she could as readily be without hands for all the use she has of them; or, rather, the use she has of them has little to do with the practical. When Corrado arrives he notices she has painted part of the wall, different colours. This indicates less a businesswoman deciding which colour to choose, than an abstract expressionist desire to find a colour that matches her feelings. How rarely do we see her use her hands for anything purposeful. Think also of the moment early on in the film where she awakens, takes her temperature before clasping herself, then gets up, and after going to her son's room sits with the thermometer in a chair in the apartment, once again trying to touch her own body as though it might at any moment disappear. Her husband briskly and efficiently takes the thermometer from her and says her temperature is 37 degrees and thus normal.
But obviously there is little in Giuliana's behaviour that indicates the normal, and if her husband merely noticed the way he uses his hands and the way his wife uses hers, then he would notice that while he is very much at one with the world, Giuliana is at several removes: he would have understood a great deal that he fails to comprehend. There is a mime artist quality to Giuliana; but a mime artist who has lost the confidence to believe that what is not present can be imagined as presence. The mime artist, though, usually gives tangibility to the invisibly tangible: to objects that readily exist in the world but not in the mime artist's act, and it is the mime artist's job to conjure these images up through how the mime artist's body reacts to these non-existent objects. We may recall the scene at the end of Blow Up where the mime artists play a game of tennis without rackets and balls. The purpose is to utilise the body in such a way that it feels the pressure of objects that don't at that moment exist.
Yet of course Giuliana is not a mime artist, and in many ways her problematic is the opposite: her problem resides much more in trying to propose a metaphysical quality to things that are present, rather than a physical quality to things that are absent. Where a mime artist might press against an invisible wall to indicate the hardness and solidity of the wall that is not there, Giuliana presses against the actual wall almost believing that it will give way to another dimension. In the scene where she goes back to Corrado's hotel room, she leans against a built in wardrobe, into his body and against a chair with the intensity of somebody hoping to find a portal to a different universe. Hands do not here recreate the world as it is in its absence, as in mime: they try to find an alternative universe within the presence of the real world.
This is central to Antonioni's pursuit; he turns the qualities of the mime artist inside out as he shows characters searching for an invisible dimension in the visible world. Hands thus no longer play the role of efficient tools in the real world, nor tools to invoke an imaginary one, but instead to try to find a dimension within ourselves and each other. In the scene where her husband takes the thermometer off Giuliana, he holds her and touches her like a man who possesses the woman in his arms. But Giuliana touches him almost with the hope that he will metamorphose into somebody or something else. He holds her and touches her as a man keeping his wife in the 'real world'; Giuliana touches him like a woman trying to find out what might exist beyond it.
This is especially so when we pay attention to Antonioni's mise-en-scene, colour scheme and use of sound. Before seeing Giuliana waking up at night to check her temperature, we have witnessed a 'real' scene that could readily have been Giuliana's nightmare. Her husband and Corrado are wandering around the factory the husband owns, and we get a series of shots of smoke exploding and billowing out of the factory. The sound accompanying the smoke is a hissing, pressurised noise consistent with what we're witnessing, but at the same time aggressive and forceful. When in the following scene she is in the flat with her husband, the tinny, hollow sound seems to have no diegetic function but hardly passes for music either. The industrialism of the society is such, and the internalisation of that society, that sound no longer functions in its place, but permeates the being of the characters. Antonioni appears to be asking what sort of sound would a woman hear in an advanced industrial society, who can't function in that society and yet who has absorbed its very core (and perhaps is neurotic for that very reason)? Antonioni's sound works like a combination of the diegetic and the non-diegetic, with sound plausibly reflecting her feelings, but also plausibly reflecting the world in which she lives.
One notices this is also true of the film's colour scheme: we may wonder whether this off-coloured world is a product of her thinking, or one that has produced that very thinking. It is most obviously both, and this is why Antonioni is simultaneously optimist and pessimist. He accepts that the world is being constantly transformed, but he also wonders more than most about what that transformation means: wonders what it is doing to transform the nature of our being. In the scene where Carrado walks along the road to Giuliana's shop, Antonioni offers a wide angle of a narrow street with houses on both sides. All the houses are grey, and the director shows it not as a futuristic environment, but closer to a traditional space that has become anaemic. Is this partly why Antonioni opens the scene with a close up of a wall as we then see Carrado entering the frame while he gets out of his car? The wide angle shot may lend itself too well to our perceiving it as a product of Giuliana's subjective vision (the walls are closing in) but it takes us further if we think of it as a space encroached upon by the modern: even traditional buildings contain the polluting possibilities of the contemporary. As Antonioni offers a shot that would seem irrelevant (an image of the wall rather than immediately showing us Carrado getting out of the car), so he also uses colour (or the lack of it), to indicate how arid the world has become. This isn't so much a symbolic use of colour; more a metonymic attempt to muse over how sensitive psychologies might adjust to this aridity. That is, the colours don't sum up the characters' feelings, they generate them. When at the end of the film Giuliana talks about the birds and how they deal with the pollution, and Antonioni has talked of what he sees as hope coming about in the conclusion, then we can see the film not simply as a condemnation of industrial living, but about learning to cope with an industrial world that is with us.
It is of course a world where our chief organ of corporeal possession must be utilised differently, for pressing buttons, for changing gears, for handling phones, and we may note that in modern technology our hands have to become ever more subtle in their use of the technological. Watch how nimbly people now use a mobile phone, or tap away on laptops as opposed to the pounding of keys on the typewriter. Technology is constantly transforming our body's capacity to utilise it, and the important question is less how it transforms us, but what happens to us in the process of that transformation. At the end of his great novel, The Confessions of Zeno, Italo Svevo's central character reckons "under the law of the greatest number of machines, disease will prosper and the diseased will grow ever more numerous." He also says, "the earliest implements only added to the length of his arm, and could not be employed except by the exercise of his own strength. But a machine creates disease because it denies what has been the law of creation throughout the ages." Svevo's narrator believes this has led to "man getting weaker and more cunning." Svevo would no doubt see such developments as the mobile phone and the laptop as consistent with this weakening.
But there is weakening and there is sensitising, and Antonioni, one of the most sensitive of filmmakers, searches out the sensitisation as much as the weakness. Even in one of his great fifties films, Il Grido, the character searching for work is viewed by Antonioni less in relation to his inability to find it, than the sensitivity with which he tries to cope with a series of humiliations after his partner's affair. Ditto in The Red Desert Antonioni doesn't want to blame society, but comprehend Giuliana. A more politically oriented filmmaker might show the way society destroys the individual - and that is obviously still partially Antonioni's concern - but he is also very much interested in how a character might cope with the changes. If we see the film partially as a work investigating the nature of one's hands in a society which has little use for them manually, then what should one then do them? They can grow weak, as Svevo notes, or can they purposefully adapt? So often they become merely grasping, and it is interesting to note how often a man's sense of mastery resides less on the work he does than on how he controls objects. To some degree this is exactly the problem with Vittoria in The Eclipse, where whether it is Francisco Rabal, playing her long term lover, or Alain Delon, her potentially new man, we notice they control possessions where Vittoria feels alienated from them. Delon's reaction to his stolen car that ends up in the river, along with the dead man who was driving it, appals Vittoria: she is more concerned with the drowned man; Delon with the sunken vehicle. When at the beginning of The Eclipse, Vittoria toys with the objects in the flat she shares with Rabal, we sense Rabal has no such problem with them.
These are in some senses men of cunning, like Giuliana's husband here. He is a man who seems to understand things: he neither especially masters and uses them the way Svevo describes the way man manipulates tools, nor does he have any especially sensitive relationship with the world. If Giuliana is drawn to Corrado is it not through the searching glances he offers that indicate a pain of his own? As Giuliana says at one moment, if her husband could look at her the way he does things would be different. If her husband looks at things practically, with the cunning of a man looking to solve problems, does Carrado look at Giuliana as a man looking to understand a problem, and is not that problem Giuliana?
If this is a key moment in the film it lies in our awareness of Antonioni's capacity to look at Giuliana, to observe the way she handles the world around her not only neurotically, though her gestures could be psychologically perceived as such, but as readily to find a use for her hands. So often they seem to be searching emotionally, as though they are less hands than feelers. Her husband has little use for his hands either, but this is because his relationship with the world is a commanding one: that he doesn't need to show with his hands, he needs to explain with his words. This is the norm for modern, bourgeois man, where his hands are used for other things: for leisure - for handling a car, a cigar, a glass of wine, a woman's body: objects over which he asserts himself. But Giuliana doesn't want to use her hands to assert herself over bourgeois objects, and her unassertiveness leads to a fresh relationship with the world that Antonioni wants to explore, and this is partly why we do not see him as a pessimist. If characters like Giuliana's husband here, Delon's character in The Eclipse, and Thomas for much of Blow Up want to assert themselves over bourgeois reality, Antonioni's final sympathies are with the doubters, with those who cannot take the reality offered to them for granted.
We are proposing that central to this problem with reality is the question of what one ought to do with one's hands in a society that, partly taking into account Svevo's comment, moves from hands as employment tools, to hands as assertive tools of one's identity in a consumer society. If one cannot believe in the relationship between one's hands and what they ought to possess, then it is likely that phenomenological breakdown, a break in the flow of perception, may take place. Henri Bergson may usefully help us here when he says in Matter and Memory "the memory of a living being indeed appears to measure, above all, its powers of action upon things." This is the hardening of instinct, the ability to act with automatic memory, allowing us to drive a car, to ride a bike, to swim in the water. But what happens if memory doesn't want to be automatic, or doesn't see the point and purpose in being automatic in situations that demand dynamic energy in its place? While Giuliana's husband sees life as a series of problems to be solved, Corrado's appeal to Giuliana is that he at least understands life is also about problems to be understood. When Bergson proposes that "I have never maintained that it was necessary 'to put something different in the place of intellect', or to set instinct above it. I have simply tried to show that when we leave the domain of mathematics and physics to enter that of life and consciousness, we must make our appeal to a certain sense of life...", it would be this 'sense of life' that Giuliana wants to comprehend, and this sense of life that Antonioni wants to explore through Giuliana.
This is why, earlier, we proposed that Giuliana was a mime artist in reverse, a sort of metaphysical mime artist determined to find another dimension to the reality that she is expected to live. When she comments on the way Corrado looks at her, is it not because he sees someone whose face is searching out this dimension rather than, like her husband, one who wants to turn her face back towards the reality as he sees it? Thus Giuliana's are metaphysical hands in an industrial world: they do not function usefully in the consumer society; they actively problematise it, and so her breakdown for Antonioni is not a problem in need of a cure, but a symptom in need of comprehension. The director could obviously offer up a narrative which would contain her cure, but that would do little to make sense of the symptomatic problem of a society that doesn't create enough options, and where people have to use their hands for the purposes of expected behaviour over, to use Bergson's famous phrase and book title, 'creative evolution'.
Not that Giuliana's problems are associated only with her husband's relative insensitivity. When we talk of a lack of options, this a problem of an industrial society that utilises all its properties for industrial ends, and Antonioni's film shows that any neurosis within Giuliana is reflected in a wider social problem of a polluted world that commodifies nature, and turns the self into an element of that commodification: hence hands that become leisure tools. This is most clearly, and perhaps too obviously, illustrated in the sequence of a young girl on a pristine beach, where nature is not so much innocent, as untouched. One of the beauties of untouched nature isn't only its natural state, but also its optional possibilities. The beach, the sea and the land can become many things as long as they remain as they are. But the landscape Antonioni generally show us, and where Giuliana lives, turns people into narrowly consuming beings due to the lack of options available. To go for a walk in such an environment, as Guliana often attempts to do, appears an act of neurosis in a place so lacking in the properties that lend themselves to a nice stroll: the trees are scorched, the river polluted and the landscape scarred by industry. The workers flats that she visits with Corrado are functional, and Antonioni doesn't so much judge them as show them. As with the factories, as with the landscapes Vitti passes through, Antonioni shows what is involved in living in cramped high rise apartments, where the gardens are landscaped and concrete, and where people live quite literally on top of each other.
Now if Antonioni were to judge them rather than show them, many would ask what social alternative is Antonioni offering. But as we've proposed, Antonioni shows instead of judges, and so he is not asking how things could be different, but why someone like Giuliana might feel the way she does in the environment in which she lives. In this sense Antonioni is ethical not moral, individualist over socio-political. He is not critiquing a society; more wondering how a woman who is highly sensitive can adjust or escape from the environment she is in. Part of Giuliana's indecision is procrastination from one perspective - and perhaps her husband's - the anxiety of human choice from another, and it is perhaps this other perspective that Carrado's character offers when she wishes her husband look at her the way he does. As Will Durant proposes when talking of Bergson in The Story of Philosophy, "choice is burdensome and effortful, it requires resolution, a lifting up of the power of personality against the spiritual gravitation of impulse or habit or sloth. Choice is creation, and creation is labour."
If we view Giuliana's position as one of choosing in an environment where choices are limited, and where choosing is a creative act, and not a personal failing, then Antonioni's perspective on Giuliana, a little like Corrado's, is an act of love that is also a creative endeavour. This was the last cinematic collaboration between Antonioni and Vitti (they would work together again on Antonioni's television/video production The Oberwald Mystery in 1979). From L'Avventura, through to The Red Desert (with The Eclipse and a slightly secondary role in La notte in between), Antonioni would film Vitti as if she were an open question to which he sought a provisional answer. Her porcelain complexion and her mask-like features need to be investigated. They cannot be assumed to express the categorical and this may have partly been why Antonioni was so drawn to her hands. As they clasp her body in the aforementioned scene, as they feel their way along the walls, they are at least as expressive as her face. If we choose to witness the choices she makes, do our observations need to be focused as much in watching the hands as the visage?
The fine critic Pascal Bonitzer has talked of Antonioni's cinema being one that "eclipsed the face" and in Vitti Antonioni found an actress whose face he could show but at the same time accept the limitations of that revelation. Unlike an actress such as Jeanne Moreau, whom Antonioni used so well in La notte, and the Antonioni film Bergman so liked chiefly because of her presence, Vitti has an unrevealing face. We are forced to look at other parts of her body to understand the emotions, and this is why we suggest the importance of hands as a means of comprehending her crisis. Thus it isn't especially that Antonioni wanted to eclipse the face; more that he wanted to extend the meaning of the shot into the body, and to utilise the surrounding space to indicate the symptomatic problem. Were the filmmaker to show only the face in contrast to the industrial landscape that is oppressing her, there would be the contrast between the anxious face and the landscape that creates the problem, but working with an actress whose face isn't her most expressive feature, and where the relationship between self and surroundings is complex when the character is clearly hypersensitive, then contrast isn't as important as immersion. Antonioni knows that by placing Vitti in certain situations, wearing certain colours, especially green and red, against grey interiors and exteriors, he can capture a tension between the self and the world.
What we have explored here then, by emphasizing the hands, is merely one aspect of Antonioni's work, while hardly ignoring others, and that may lead to other thoughts on Antonioni's use of hands, or other parts of the body, to emphasize the de-dramatized aspect critics so often talk about. The face is usually a dramatized aspect, and so also are the hands if they're shown asserting themselves in a manner consistent with Hegel's observations. But what happens if the face doesn't contain the requisite expression, and the hands are not assertively used? Do we almost inevitably have de-dramatization as a consequence? The Red Desert is one of many almost infinitely interesting films of the sixties, and our purpose has hardly been to unlock its meaning. It has been merely to propose ways in which Antonioni reconfigures drama and at the same time helps us understand the notion of choice when society's options aren't as varied as we might wish. "I'm not against progress" Antonioni says, in an interview in The Architecture of Vision, "but there are people who, by their nature, by their moral makeup, have to wrestle with the modern world and can't manage to adapt to it." Giuliana is surely close to being such a character.
© Tony McKibbin