Michelangelo Antonionis 1964 masterpiece The Red Desert offers a visually perfect dream-like trip with sci-fi style sound effect and the image much richer than its content. Set in an industrial town full of smog and urbanistic landscape, it shows rather than tells a story that totally ignores the Hollywood Paradigm. Despite its blurry and rather incoherent storyline, the movie represents Antonionis vision of what it is like to be a woman. The images of women in the movie, being elusive and alien-like (as seen from a male perspective), still reflect typically sexist apprehension of women in the society of the 1960s.
The sexist position towards women is mainly manifested through the perception of women as sex-objects rather than full-pledged individuals. Though being generally sympathetic towards women, Antonioni is largely a sexist. The Red Desert, as well as his other movies featuring Monica Vitti, is very eloquent as to the perception of women as mysterious creatures that never know what they want and are mostly impossible to understand while being invariably elegantly dressed and sexually attractive. The movie opens with the scene of Giuliana walking with her son towards the plant along some non-paved waste-ground. She is wearing a dressy green coat, tights and stiletto-heels that look extremely uncomfortable. However, everybody around seems to take such an outfit for granted, as women generally were supposed to look like that at any moment.
Guliana is not a typical protaganonist in the classic Hollywood Paradigm (Classical Style) that has an ultimate aim to find a soul-mate and get married. In fact, she is already married and has a son. The plot does center on her but she certainly needs some tangible features to be defined as an individual. Everything that the viewer (and probably the director too) knows about her personality is that she was (mostly mentally) traumatized during some mysterious accident and is slightly deranged at present. After that she feels somehow cut off from the world around her, she feels an acute sense of separation that makes her feel disoriented and desperate for engagement (The Film Sufi). The doctor in the mental hospital advised her to try restoring the connection through love to try loving something new a pet, a child, a job or a hobby. Guliana is planning to open a shop but Ugo, her husband, thinks its not serious. Ugos general attitude to Guliana is very sexist too - he perceives her as an object that he possesses rather than an individual. In the scene where Ugo introduces Guliana to Corrado, his business partner, this attitude is vividly manifested: when Ugo sees that Guliana is there at the plant, he hastily grabs her by the shoulder and introduces to Corrado as if to boast of his treasured possession. Antonionis portrayal of her is also characteristic of the same prejudices: Guliana is visibly uncomfortable in the noisy space of the plant and she leaves immediately thus making an indirect statement that a plant is not a proper place for a woman.
Another manifestation of the perception of Guliana as a sex object is seen in her relationship with Corrado. Corrado is attracted to his partners wife the very first moment he sees at the plant. He acts on his feelings and seeks her company whenever possible. He seems more thoughtful and understanding than Ugo and he talks to her about her alienation from people. Giuliana gets attracted to him too but it is not physical intercourse that she needs. Corrado, as any man, sees attraction as something inevitably physical and invading but making love to Corrado does not cure Giuliana. Corrados feels deeply hurt when Giuliana tells him that because he seems to think that all Giuliana needs to be happy is a better man. Corrado is no better than Ugo in his sexist belief that his affection will make a disturbed woman feel better. This is another example of digression from the Hollywood Paradigm that prescribes the heroine to be happy with her new-found partner. There is also no order that is first disturbed and then restored (Classical Style). However, something is changed within Giuliana in the end of the movie. She finds inner resources to restore her mental harmony. The Red Desert ends with a framing scene at the same spot where it starts with Giuliana walking with her son near the plant. Guiliana seems much less deranged and more focused on the present moment with her child.
Other female characters are portrayed with almost the same sexist approach. The women in the movie are shown less adaptive and flexible than men. They are afraid to change anything and would stick to the familiar rather than explore something new as men would do. For instance, when Corrado and Giuliana visit the house of some worker that Corrado wants to offer a job to, they are let inside by his wife who looks incredibly plain and homely. She is obviously a housewife and has no business other than working about the house. She is even wearing an apron to visually emphasize that. Her fear that Corrado will offer her husband a job that would require his moving to a different place is also highly representative of sexist apprehensions of the epoch. The workers wife overtly says that she would prefer everything as it is. Similarly to her, Giuliana confesses that if she ever moved, she would have to take all the things that she is attached to with her. Antonioni alludes to womens attachment to home and material possessions while showing men as more modernistic and ready to change. Thus, Antonioni shows the men as the ones who construct the world and the women as those who seek to live in a given, stable world (not a self-constructed one) (The Film Sufi). The example of such a given world is the perfect world at the beach where Giulianas true self, a teenage girl in a brown swimsuit, is safe and happy.
Other women characters are shown with even more bias. Emilia and Linda, the two women at the party in the shack at the river bank, are shown with extreme chauvinism. They are nothing more than objects, petted, stroked and generally enjoyed by the men. Linda seems not to mind her husband hitting on other women in the party and Ugo strokes Lindas leg as if she were just a pet lying cozily on the sofa. The conversation at the party is also light-hearted and intended for womens supposedly lower intellects. The men talk about quail eggs that can assumedly enhance male performance as if that was the only thing women can and should think about.
Without any doubt Antonionis movie is evidently much more than a mere representation of female characters through a male perspective. It could also be read as a tale about human detachment from the modern world with its dehumanizing metal constructions and suffocating plant smoke. Antonioni, as Fred Patton puts it, sought to paint a film, more than write it, making it a movie of picturesque framings and evocative moods (Patton). However, the directors apparent focus on visual rather than linguistic means, gives a glimpse of the 1960s reality anyway. According to Colin MacCabe, the revelation of reality is the prime task of cinema, and all aesthetic devices are simply there to unmake themselves so that we too can experience, as the artist experienced before us, that moment at which reality presents itself whole (182). The aesthetic devices that Antonioni uses are those of color, framing and the duration of his mostly meditative shots. All of these devices undoubtedly serve the purpose of painting the reality (as the director views it) for the audience. For instance, its always Giulianas eyes rather than lips that are accentuated in her make-up as if reminding the viewer that a woman should not talk much. The same idea is expressed in a more direct way in the shot with Giuliana and Corrado walking along the street Guilianas mouth is completely hidden behind a scarf. The scarf shields her from the hostile world around and at the same time separates her from people close to her. Another way Antonioni visually detaches Giuliana from the people around her is by putting her inside a frame of some kind. The woman is almost literally caged within the frame of her unhappy marriage and motherhood to a boy that she feels very little connection to. Guilianas hair is also styled in a way that it sometimes covers her mouth or even a bigger part of her face thus creating an association with animal fur. Giuliana does remind of a hurt animal that needs human shelter and protection. Her luxuriant hair style in lions mane manner also intensifies her animal sexuality that she is radiantly beaming with.
Therefore, Michelangelo Antonionis The Red Desert can be considered one of those movies where sexism is unconsciously naturalized. All the female characters in the movie lack personality and mostly embody the male idea of women as fragile, incomprehensible and almost alien creatures that hardly know what they want besides the desire to live in a stable world constructed by men and fill the world with their beauty and sexuality. The visual richness of Antonionis picture renders the message of female helplessness and separation with genius perfection. Though the director does not try to fit into the Hollywood Paradigm with it requirement to restore the ideal world for the protagonist, Guiliana does go through some transformation and resolve some of her issues by the end of the movie.
Classical Hollywood Paradigm [PDF]. (n.d.).
MacCabe, C. (1982). Theory and Film: Principles of Realism and Pleasure. Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology, Edited by Philip Rosen, NY: Columbia University Press pp. 179-197.
Patton, F. (n.d.). Reflections on Red Desert. Retrieved June 02, 2016, from http://www.dvdbeaver.com/film/articles/redesert3.htm
The Film Sufi (2010, January 9). Red Desert - Michelangelo Antonioni (1964). Retrieved June 02, 2016, from http://www.filmsufi.com/2010/09/red-desert-michelangelo-antonioni-1964.html
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