Michelangelo Antonioni has said that he appreciates the beauty of factories he shot in his 1964 film Red Desert and that his main character, Giuliana, cannot adjust to progress. Indeed, Giuliana is out of step with progress in the form of industrialization, but the director surrounds her, and focuses on, air tainted with lurid, poisoned yellow gas; ground strewn with garbage and industrial waste; and disgusting lakes and bodies of water fouled by oil and other industrial chemical pollutants. Her surroundings are revolting, yet the people around her take them for granted. She is having a nervous breakdown partly from revulsion at her hideous environment, but also because she feels distanced from other people who are perfectly at home with the destructive effects of “progress.”
Under the titles at the beginning of the film, a factory is shown out of focus. The first shot after the titles end is of a steel tower spitting balls of fire, like a dragon. Next to it is a nuclear reactor, spewing smoke into the air.
We first see Giuliana (Monica Vitti) walking near her husband’s factory in Ravenna, wearing a green coat. Although she is outdoors, her coat is the only green in the landscape. As she eats a sandwich, she is shown with the tower disgorging fire over her head, then with mounds of trash and industrial waste at her feet. In this unnatural, icky landscape the ground belches smoke, bringing to mind the fires of hell.
The action moves to the factory, where Giuliana’s husband is the boss. A worker tells him the steam temperature is high. The boss is unconcerned about potential danger, and tells the worker to adjust controls to lower it.
Giuliana comes in and goes to wait in his office. As she crosses the factory floor, she passes a spot disgorging smoke. Suddenly a spurt of smoke gushes out and, startled, she hops out of the way to avoid it.
Then her husband and a man named Corrado (Richard Harris), who is looking for workers to take to Buenos Aires, go outside the plant. Some smoke is coming from the plant, then a whole lot of smoke starts to come rushing out; clouds of it billow out and obscure part of the factory, then expand to fill part of the sky. It looks like it’s going to blow. The two men stand calmly by, watching it. They back up a little to avoid the smoke so they can continue to see, but are otherwise unconcerned.
The film cuts to Giuliana’s house. The architecture and furniture are stark and modern; the stair railings are blue pipe that resemble the pipes in her husband’s factory. Her son’s toys are all mechanical; no balls, marbles, jacks, teddy bears or yo-yos, nothing cute, cuddly or fuzzy. A child-sized robot on wheels mindlessly goes back and forth, and the boy’s father gives him a mechanical top with a gyroscope inside.
Giuliana tells her husband she dreamt her bed was sinking in quicksand. She obviously feels her world and her marriage are unstable and unsafe. She has been hospitalized for mental instability and she tried to commit suicide.
Later, she goes to an empty store that she wants to open to sell ceramics, then accompanies Corrado to look for workers. Streets are bleak, unpopulated and kind of spooky. Buildings are stark and boxy. Giuliana’s husband joins them. They pass a lake, turned black with oil, sludge and gunk, in a wasteland of pollution. The water is really disgusting. “Waste has to go somewhere,” says Giuliana’s husband, tritely. Giuliana recalls that at a nearby restaurant a diner complained his eel tasted like petroleum.
They walk further and encounter more water fouled by oil. It is mottled black with patches of muck. Not to sound like Roseanne Rosanneadanna, but it looks thick, noxious, gooey and stinky.
They reach a shack near the ocean with two rooms. One room has a wood-burning stove and the other is taken up, wall to wall, with a bed. Giuliana, her husband, Corrado, the boss of another business and his wife, and another woman, get on the bed and kid one another about having an orgy but don’t go through with it.
Then – they destroy their environment. They tear down the boards that form a wall dividing the two rooms and chuck them in the burning fireplace. Only the businessman who owns the shack objects to the destruction of his property.
A doctor, and then an ambulance arrive at a large ship next to the shack. Then a seaman raises a yellow flag, signifying disease or pestilence. With all the pollution we’ve seen, it’s no wonder.
Giuliana goes home and her son, who has numbness in his legs or is faking it, asks her to tell him a story. Her story takes place in an environment diametrically opposed to the one she inhabits. Her fantasy is about a girl at a beach with clear, pristine water. She has no people for companions, but cormorants and seagulls and wild rabbits live and frolic at the beach. Green vegetation surrounds them. Rocks eroded and rounded by the waves have almost human shapes. She hears singing that turns out to be the song of everything around her: she is in tune with nature.
Giuliana goes to visit Corrado at his hotel. She tells him she can’t manage in life because she needs people. Evidently, she can’t express herself or relate to others because they accept what she finds unacceptable. She looks to him for help because he is interested in her, but his interest is probably sexual. She sleeps with him, which solves none of her problems.
At the end of the film, she is back with her son outside her husband’s factory. Smoke is coming out of the ground, and suddenly a spurt of smoke erupts. Her son asks her why and she says she doesn’t know, but she doesn’t become agitated. He asks about the poisonous yellow gas coming from a smokestack, and she says the birds have learned to avoid it.
The world becomes blurry and she hears spooky science-fiction type music, signs of attacks of alienation she’s had in the past, but she doesn’t dwell on it and moves past it. She will try to adapt as well as she can.