The Night, The Eclipse, The Dawn (November 1964)
Your three previous films, L’avventura, La notte, The Eclipse gave, the impression of developing out of one another and standing along the same line of inquiry. And now you seem to have reached a new destination with Red Desert. For the ‘woman in the film, perhaps, it is a desert but for you, it is something fuller; more complete: it’s a film about the whole world and not just about the world of today.
For the moment, it’s very hard for me to talk about Red Desert. It’s too recent a film. I’m still too close to the “intentions” that drove me to make it; I don’t have the clarity of thought and the detachment necessary to judge it correctly. Still, I think I can say that this time I haven’t made a film about feelings. The results that I had obtained from my previous films – good or bad as they may be – have by now become obsolete. The question is completely different. At one time, I was interested in the relationships of characters to one another. Now, instead, the main character must confront her social environment, and that’s why I treat the story in a completely different way.
It’s too simplistic to say – as many people have done – that I am condemning the inhuman industrial world which oppresses the individuals and leads them to neurosis. My intention – and I realize that one always knows where one starts off, but very rarely where one is going to – my intention was to translate the poetry of that world, in which even factories can be beautiful. The lines and curves of factories and their chimneys can be more beautiful than the outline of trees, which we are already too accustomed to seeing. It is a rich world, alive and serviceable.
I have to say that the neurosis I sought to describe in Red Desert is above all a matter of adjusting. There are people who do adapt, and others who can’t manage, perhaps because they are too tied to ways of life that are by now out-of-date. This is Giuliana’s problem. What brought on her personal crisis was the irreconcilable divide, the gap, between her sensibility, intelligence, and psychology, and the way of life that is imposed on her. It’s a crisis that has to do not just with her surface relationships with the world – her perception of sounds, colors, and the coldness of the people around her – but with her whole system of values (social, moral, and religious), which are by now out-of-date and can no longer support her. She therefore finds that she has to reinvent herself completely as a woman. That is the advice her doctors give her and that she tries to follow. The film, in a sense, is the history of that effort.
How does the story she tells her child fit into all this?
There is a woman and there is a sick child. The mother has to tell a story to the sick child, but he already knows all the ones she knows. So she has to invent one. Considering Giuliana’s psychology, I think it’s natural that for her the story should become – unconsciously – an escape from the reality of her life, a way out to a world where the colors are those of nature. The sea is blue and the sand is white. Even the rocks take on a human form, embracing her and singing to her sweetly. Do you remember the scene in the bedroom with Corrado? She is leaning against the wall and she says: “Do you know what I’d like? To have all the people who have loved me, to have them here around me like a wall.” She needs them to help her live; she’s afraid she might not make it by herself.
So the modern world is nothing but a tool to reveal an ancient, deeper neurosis?
The environment she lives in accentuates Giuliana’s crisis, but naturally, for a crisis to occur, there must be fertile ground in which it can take root. It’s not easy to determine the causes and origins of neurosis. It reveals itself in many forms; sometimes the symptoms look like schizophrenia. It’s only by putting pressure on the character, by subjecting it to a sort of provocation, that you begin to grasp the situation. I have been criticized for having chosen a pathological case. But if I had chosen a woman who had integrated perfectly normally into society, there would have been no drama; drama lies in those who don’t adapt to society’s norms.
Weren’t there, perhaps, already traces of this character in The Eclipse?
Vittoria, the character in The Eclipse, is the opposite of Giuliana. She’s a calm, well-balanced girl who thinks about what she is doing. There is absolutely no symptom of neurosis in her. In The Eclipse, the crisis has to do with emotions. In Red Desert, the emotions are taken for granted. The relationship between Giuliana and her husband is normal. If someone asked her: “Do you love your husband?,” she would say: Yes. Until her attempted suicide, her crisis is buried deep inside her, it’s almost imperceptible. I would like to make clear that it’s not her environment that causes her crisis: that’s just the trigger. You might think that outside of that environment there would be no crisis. That’s not so. Even though we don’t realize it, our lives are dominated by “industry.” And by “industry,” I don’t just mean the factories themselves, but also their products. They are all over our houses, made of plastic or materials that, up to a few years ago, were totally unknown. They are brightly colored and they chase after us everywhere. They haunt us from the advertisements, which appeal ever more subtly to our psychology, to our subconscious. I would go as far as to say that by setting the story of Red Desert in the world of factories, I have got to the source of that crisis that, like a river, collects together a thousand tributaries and then bursts out into a delta, overflowing its banks and drowning everything.
Doesn’t the beauty of the modern world also represent an answer to people’s psychological problems, revealing their futility?
The drama of these individuals, who are so conditioned by society, should not be underestimated. Without this type of drama, perhaps mankind wouldn’t even exist. Still, I don’t think that the beauty of the modern world can solve all of our dramas by itself. On the contrary, I think that if we learn how to adapt ourselves to the new techniques of life, perhaps then we will find new solutions to our problems. But why do you make me talk about these things? I’m not a philosopher, and these discussions have nothing to do with the “invention” of a film.
Is the robot in the little boy’s bedroom a good or an evil presence in his life?
A good one, I think. Because if he gets used to that sort of toy, he will prepare himself for the type of life that is awaiting him. But we are getting back to what we were talking about just now. Toys are the product of industry, which through them exercises its influence also over the education of young children. I am still amazed by a conversation I had with a professor of cybernetics at the University of Milan, Silvio Ceccato, who the Americans hold in high esteem, a sort of a new Einstein. He’s amazing, he has invented a machine that is capable of seeing and of describing what it sees, of driving a car and writing an article from any given aesthetic, ethical, or political point of view. It’s not a television, but a true electronic brain. In the course of our conversation, this man, who is so extraordinarily intelligent, didn’t use a single technical term that I couldn’t grasp. Well – I thought I was going mad. After a while I couldn’t understand what he was talking about. Despite the fact that he was trying to speak my language, we were still living in two different worlds. Beside him was his secretary, of about twenty-four or twenty-five, a cute girl from the lower middle-class. She understood him perfectly. The people who program these electronic brains are, in Italy at least, usually young girls with an ordinary high-school diploma: for them it’s very easy to deal with the thoughts of an electronic brain, while for me it’s certainly not so.
Six months ago another scholar came to visit me in Rome, Robert M. Stewart. He had invented a chemical brain and he was going to Naples to a congress on cybernetics to tell them about his invention, one of the most extraordinary discoveries in the world. It was in a tiny box, mounted on a load of tubes: there were cells, made up of gold and other substances, in a chemical solution. These cells have a life of their own and have certain reactions: if you walk into a room, they take on one shape, whereas if I walk in, they take on another, and so on. In that little box there were a few million cells, but from such basis you can actually reconstruct a human brain. That man feeds them, puts them to sleep – he talked to me about it very clearly, but it was so incredible that at a certain point I couldn’t follow him anymore. Yet, a child who has played with robots from his earliest years would understand perfectly; such a child would have no problem going into space on a rocket, if he wanted to.
I feel very envious of such people. I really wish I were already part of that new world. Unfortunately, we are not there yet, and for older generations, such as mine or that of people born just after the war, this is a real tragedy. I think that in the next few years we will see some major violent transformations, both in the physical world and in man’s psyche.The current crises derive from this spiritual confusion, which is also moral, religious, and political. So I have asked myself: “What does cinema have to say to us today?” And that’s why I wanted to tell a story about the things I mentioned before.
And yet the male heroes of your films are part of this mentality. They are engineers; they are part of this new world.
No, absolutely not. Richard Harris is an almost romantic figure, thinking of running away to Patagonia. He hasn’t the least idea of what he should be doing. He wants to go away; he thinks that in this way he will solve his existential crisis. He doesn’t realize that the problem is inside himself, not outside. In fact, meeting a woman is enough to make him doubt whether he really wants to leave. This encounter upsets him. I would like to emphasize one moment in the film which is intended as a criticism of the old world. When the woman, in the middle of her crisis, needs help, she meets a man who takes advantage of her and her insecurity. They are the same old things that overwhelm her. Somebody like her husband would have acted differently: first he would have tried to help her then perhaps later – but as it is, she’s betrayed by her own world.
At the end of the film will she perhaps become more like her husband?
I think that after the effort of trying to find a connection with reality, she might end up by compromising. Neurotics go through periods of crisis, but also periods of lucidity that can last a lifetime. She may find a compromise, but the neurosis will stay with her forever. I wanted to hint at this idea of continuing sickness by the slightly unfocused images. She is in a static phase of her life. What will become of her? I’d have to make another film to find out.
Do you think that being conscious of modernity has any repercussions on your aesthetics, on your work as an artist?
Yes, of course. It alters my way of seeing things. It changes everything. Pop art is a proof that we are looking for something new. Pop art should not be underestimated. It’s an “ironic” movement, and a conscious irony is extremely important. Apart from [Robert] Rauschenberg, who is more of a painter than the others, pop artists are well aware that the aesthetic value of their work isn’t yet mature – though [Claes] Oldenburg’s Soft Typewriter is beautiful, I like it a lot. I think it’s a good thing that all this has been expressed. It can only accelerate the transformation process I talked about.
Do scientists share this awareness? Do they see the world as we do?
I put that same question to Stewart, the inventor of the chemical brain. He replied that his particular job certainly has an effect on his private life and on his relationships with his family.
And feelings? Should we keep them?
What a question! Do you think it’s easy to answer something like that? All I can say is that our feelings have to change. “Have to” – I should say they are already changing, have changed.
In science fiction novels, characters are never artists or poets.
That’s true, it’s strange. Perhaps they think they can do without art. Perhaps we will be the last to produce completely superfluous things like works of art.
Did Red Desert also help you to solve some personal problems?
Filmmaking means living, and so it also means solving personal issues – issues that have to do with work, but also with private life. If people are no longer talking about the same things as they did after the war, that’s because the world has changed around us, but also because we have changed. Our needs, our goals, our arguments have changed. Right after the war, there were many things that had to be said. What counted was to show social reality, the social conditions of the individual. Today, this has already been done, already seen. The new themes that we have to deal with are the ones I have already mentioned. I don’t yet know how to deal with them, how they should be presented. In Red Desert, I think I have at least touched upon one of them, even if I haven’t treated it fully. We have just begun to confront a series of problems, of aspects of modern society, of our way of living. Even you, Mr. Godard, make very modern films; your way of dealing with certain topics reveals a need to break with the past.
When you start or end a shot of an abstract shape, of an object or detail, do you do so in the same spirit as a painter?
I feel the need to express reality in terms that are not completely realistic. The white abstract line that breaks into the shot of the little gray road interests me much more than the car which is coming toward us. It’s a way of getting close to the character by starting from things instead of from her life – which, after all, is of only relative importance to me. Her character is part of the story in a way that is dependent on her femaleness, her female outlook and personality – which I think are essential to the story. That is why I wanted the part to be played in a slightly static kind of way.
On this point, too, there is a break with your previous films.
Yes, figuratively speaking, it is a less realistic film. That is to say, it’s realistic in a different way. For example, I used the camera lens to limit the depth of field, which is of course an essential element in realism. What interests me now is to put the characters in contact with things, because today what counts are things, objects, matter. I don’t believe that Red Desert is the last word; it is, rather, an ongoing piece of research. I want to tell different stories with different tools. Everything that has been done, everything that I have done up until now, no longer interests me; it bores me. Perhaps you also feel the same way?
Did shooting in color represent an important change for you?
Very important. I was forced to change my technique, although it wasn’t just because of color. I was already feeling the need to make a change for the reasons we were talking about. My needs were no longer the same, and using color only accelerated the change. Color requires different lenses. Besides, I realized that certain camera movements were no longer possible: a fast pan works well if the main color is bright red, but it doesn’t work if the color is olive green, unless it is meant to suggest new contrasts. I think that there is a relationship between color and the camera. One film alone is not sufficient to examine the problem in depth, but it is a problem which has to be studied. I had done some interesting experiments on 16mm film, but I have been able to put in the film only some of the effects I had discovered. Sometimes, one is just to busy. You know that there is such a thing as a psychophysiology of color; studies and experiments have been done about it. The inside of the factory in the film was painted red; in the space of two weeks, the workers on the set had come to blows. The experiment was repeated, painting everything pale green and calm was restored. The workers’ eyes need to be soothed.
How did you choose the colors for the shop?
We had to choose between warm and cool tones. For her shop, Giuliana needs cool colors, because they show off better the things she has to sell. Against a wall painted bright orange, the things would be drowned, while against a pale blue or green the objects would stand out without being overwhelmed. I was interested in the contrast between cool and warm colors; there was orange, yellow, a brown ceiling – and Giuliana realizes that for her it is no good.
Originally the title of your film was going to be “Pale Blue and Green.”
I dropped it because it didn’t seem to me to be strong enough. It was too tied to the idea of color. I never thought of color, per se. The film was conceived in color, yes, but obviously my main concern was what needed to be said, even though I did use color in order to express that. I never thought: “Now let’s put a blue next to a brown.” I wanted the grass around the hut to be colored in order to accentuate the sense of desolation, of death. I had to give the landscape a certain truth: dead trees really are that color.
So the drama is not just psychological, but also plastic.
Well, it’s the same thing.
And all those shots of objects during the conversation about Patagonia?
It corresponds to a sort of “absent-mindedness” on the part of the character. He’s tired of all that talking. He’s thinking of Giuliana.
The dialogues are simpler, more functional than in your previous films. Perhaps their traditional function as commentary on the action has been taken over by the use of color?
Yes, I think that’s it. Let’s say that they have been reduced to the bare minimum, and in that sense they are linked to the use of color. For example, in the scene in the hut where they are talking about drugs and stimulants, I couldn’t not use red. In black and white it would never have worked. The red puts the viewer into a state of mind that allows him to accept such dialogues. It’s the right color for the characters – who, in turn are justified by the color – and also for the viewer.
Do you feel closer to the methods of painters or of writers?
I feel close to the methods of the nouveau roman, even though they are less useful to me than certain others. I’m even more interested in painting and in a scientific methodology, although I don’t believe they influence me directly. In my film, the methods of the painter are not used; we are very far from the exercise of painting – or at least, so it seems to me. And of course certain pictorial needs, which in painting do not have any narrative content, find this content in cinema. That is where the novel and painting come together.
Did you take up the offer by Technicolor to enhance the color of your film in the developing room?
I never rely on the developing room when I’m shooting. I mean that I try to give things and landscapes their correct color on location, so that I don’t have to touch them up in the developing room. What I try to do instead is to use the lab to make sure that the effects are faithful to the original intention. It hasn’t been easy because, as you know, Technicolor requires many processes to be performed on the film. It’s been an extremely long and delicate process.
Did you do color adjustment during the shootings?
Precisely. I think that you should never rely too much on what can be done in the lab. It’s not their fault. It’s because with color, from a technical point of view, we are still quite unsophisticated.
Do you think that Giuliana sees colors as you do in the film?
Some neurotics do see color differently. Scientists have done experiments on this subject, using mescaline, for example, to discover what they really see. I have also thought of doing this type of experiment. In the film, there is only one scene where you see stains on the wall. I had thought of changing the colors of certain objects, too, but then it seemed to me that all those “tricks” were fake, that they were artificial ways of saying something which could be said much more simply. So I cut out those effects. Sure, we can say that she sees colors differently. It’s odd. Here I am talking to Mr. Godard, one of the best and most modern directors today, and just a while ago I had lunch with Rene Clair, one of the greatest directors of the past. The conversation with him was rather different. He is worried about the future of cinema. We – I think you will agree – have faith in the future of cinema.
And what will you do now?
I’m preparing an episode with Soraya(Iranian born Soraya Esfandiary became the Shah of Iran’s second wife in 1951. After being divorced in 1958, she moved to Italy where she started an acting career, using her first name only, Soraya, as her stage name). With this story, I want to continue the research into colors, pushing it beyond the experiments I did in Red Desert. And after that, I’ll make a film that interests me even more. Provided that I can find a producer who will let me do it.
From Cahiers du Cinema 16o, November 1964.