The Trials of Individuation in Late Modernity: Exploring Subject Formation in Antonioni's Red Desert

Christine Henderson


In this paper, I argue that Michelangelo Antonioni, in his first full-length colour feature, Red Desert (Il Deserto Rosso, 1964), uses cinematic language to explore what contemporary psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva, decades later, has called the crisis of primary narcissism, one of the 'new maladies' afflicting the modern subject, that she describes in Tales of Love (1983).  In examining the struggles of subject formation, Antonioni poetically describes the devastating breakdown of both subjectivity and intersubjectivity in conditions of late modernity that Kristeva details through her own psychoanalytic account.  Into Antonioni's infamous statement 'Eros is sick', we can read Kristeva's suggestion that Narcissus, our capacity for love and loss, separateness and idealization—the very foundation for our being with others—is in a state of serious affliction.  Through the trials of his main protagonist, Giuliana, Antonioni reveals that the acquisition of a distinct, differentiated identity, one that allows the subject to establish and maintain meaningful relationships and ethical bonds, without the risk of psychic disintegration, has become highly problematic—reaching the level of a collective crisis, rather than remaining an issue of individual illness.  For Antonioni, psychic survival in the modern world is not merely a question of seamless integration, but a form of (dis)adaptation: the recognition of severance and of separation, both from nature and our own nature, that allows one to affirm her environment and act as an responsive agent in the world, without being overwhelmed or engulfed by otherness, or alterity. In Kristeva's terms, this involves the capacity to bear and, even, to creatively elaborate, the necessity of loss and separation from the primal (m)other—a painful process to which Giuliana eventually submits.


Antonioni; Red Desert; Kristeva

Full Text: PDF

Go to Edinburgh University Press