Antonioni’s Red Desert and Cavalier’s Le Combat dans l’ile – DVDs of the Week
Red Desert (Criterion)
The color debut of Michelangelo Antonioni continues his exploration into the cinema of alienation with a new dimension. And it’s not just the expanded palette, which he paints in the colors of waste. This drama of dislocation and neurosis is set against an industrial landscape where the rivers are choked black and oily with pollution, the barren lots around factories are dead, gray graveyards of junk and ash and waste, the horizon is made up of smokestacks belching smoke and flames and even the parks hiss smoke from pipes running under the sod.
Giuliana (Monica Vitti, Antonioni’s great muse) navigates this world tenuously, a fragile woman in a world where the detritus of industry has almost eradicated the natural world. Richard Harris (his voice dubbed into Italian) is a visiting corporate recruiter who becomes infatuated with the beautiful but nervous wife of his colleague. There’s a flirtation of sorts, but it’s as emotionally smothered as the industrial world around them.
Antonioni is in full control and it’s not always obvious just how much control he exerts as he reconstructs the impersonal reality around them. At least until the dreary skies, the putrid parks and waterways, even the fact that every window opens up to more industrial detritus; even Giuliana’s home overlooks a shipping canal, giving her a magnificent view of the passing freighters. Which pretty much defines both why Antonioni impresses me as a filmmaker yet leaves me cold as an artist. He casts a hypnotic spell, his every frame is impeccably composed and painted (literally in the case of one particularly bleak landscape, which Antonioni has doused in gray paint for greater effect) and his imagery stripped of extraneous details, the better for his characters to stand out from the gray, like aliens in a strange landscape. But these landscape are also so exaggerated and contrived, and the performances so controlled and calculated, that I never for once believe they live in the real world, and his characters are so empty that they are almost impossible to relate to.
Mastered from the original 35mm camera negative, it’s almost flawless (with a touch of fluctuating pixels in the neutral skies) and so clean that the hard vertical scratches 65 minutes into the film—the only blemishes on the print—are jarring.
The DVD and Blu-ray feature the same excellent supplements. The commentary by Italian film scholar David Forgacs is informed and informative, a well organized mix of production details, observations and insights but decidedly on the scholarly side. Antonioni offers his own explanations in a 12-minute archival TV interview from 1964 and Monica Vitti discusses her personal and professional relationship with Antonioni in a 1990 interview (both in French with subtitles). Most exciting are two early Antonioni documentary shorts: his debut film Gente del Po (1947), a portrait of the hard lives of the people living on the Po River, and N.U. (1948), about the street cleaners of Rome. Both show Antonioni’s focus on placing people within their landscapes, rural and urban. Also includes booklet with a new essay and archival pieces.
Le Combat dans l’ile (Zeitgeist)
The last decade has presented many magnificent rediscoveries when it comes to French cinema of the sixties, but none of them have taken me as off-guard as the 1962 feature debut of Alain Cavalier, all but unknown in the U.S. until its 2009 revival. With the cool B&W look of Louis Malle’s early sixties thrillers and a star-studded cast, the opening scenes seem to be leading up to a New Wave thriller set in the chic-ly impersonal world of Parisian high society. But when businessman Clement (Jean-Louis Trintignant) starts slapping his dizzy trophy wife (Romy Schneider) around as foreplay before heading out to train with his right-wing paramilitary cabal, you know this is heading into truly weird territory. When he starts unpacking his latest toy, a rocket launcher that he assembles right in his own living room, you know we’ve arrived. The scenes of training, followed by a beer-hall celebration, feels like some sick secret society where a weapons practice and fascist ideology just whet the appetite for a cold one with the boys, but he’s a true believer who puts his training into practice with an assignment to assassinate a Communist troublemaker.
Just as disturbing is the response from his wife, who is no innocent dupe sheltered from his extracurricular activities. Her objections aren’t to his actions but to the sacrifices they call for when things go inevitably wrong. What’s she to do for warmth and companionship if he’s on the run from the cops? Cavalier can’t sustain the mix of dispassionate observation and emotional action but he certainly keeps you hooked as our fascist revolutionary follows his warped sense of honor to the bitter end. Henri Serre (of Truffaut’s “Jules and Jim”) co-stars as his boyhood friend whose loyalty ends when he discovers the reality of Clement’s secret life. Cavalier created the new 13-minute short “France 1961,”a reflective piece made up of still photos, musing narration and a survey of Cavalier’s apartment, to accompany the release. French with English subtitles. Also features stills and a fold-out booklet with essays and notes.
My piece on Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up is on Parallax View here.