Another day, another film out of Roger Ebert’s The Great Movies. But this one is a little different. I actually saw Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up for the first time a little over a month ago, in the middle of April. It is rare for me to rewatch a movie so quickly, but I liked it well enough the first time. Might as well check it out again.
The film stars David Hemmings as an unnamed fashion photographer in England. Over the course of a single day the photographer goes about his business – taking pictures, snapping photographs, and exposing film to light in various configurations. It’s a full day to say the least, but eventually the photographer realizes some photos he took of a woman (Vanessa Redgrave) in the park may contain evidence of a crime.
The movie is not nearly as narratively focused as that last sentence might imply. The entire picture is from the photographer’s perspective (hah, pun), and Hemmings’s character is not the most focused individual (another pun?). He jumps from place to place and idea to idea without a second thought, and Antonioni jumps with him.
Being such a highly-regarded figure in the industry, our photographer is used to taking control. He is like a god in his studio, and he behaves like one, acting in a manner that in reminiscent of the Greek gods that have inspired stories of debauchery for centuries. The photographer does and says whatever he wants, regardless of the opinions or feelings of others.
This is eminently apparent in the early park scene. When Redgrave’s character confronts him about taking unsolicited and unwanted photos, Demmings’a photographer couldn’t care less. He promises to give her the negatives, but it’s clear he never will; those pictures are his now, to use in whatever manner he chooses.
In a later scene the photographer uses his power and influence to take advantage of two young girls (Jane Birkin and Gillian Hills) who aspire to be fashion models. Agreeing to take their pictures, the photographer ultimately draws them into a wild, sexual romp. The audio during this scene consists of the laughter of the three participants, but it contrasts with what we can see. The characters aren’t laughing on camera – they seem distressed, and more than a little uncomfortable. One could argue this is a reflection of the actresses’ feelings about their own nudity, but whether that is true or not, it fits in with Demmings’s character’s warped perspective.
The noir-ish amateur investigation the photographer undertakes while examining his photographs is really just another whim for the character. Sure, he is intrigued by the possibility of violence, but even when he’s in the middle of searching for clues he gets distracted – by the girls, by a local Yardbirds show, and eventually by a wild party.
We can debate whether the crime actually happened, but that doesn’t really matter. The movie isn’t too interested in what did or didn’t happen; Antonioni is more fascinated by this man whose own point of view is the only thing that really matters to him. Early in the film the photographer says, “I wish I had tons of money, then I’d be free.” By all appearances, the photographer is free (and he’s not exactly hurting for money), but he feels trapped at that moment, so in his mind he is indeed trapped. But who knows, in the next instant he may be playing mime tennis with a roving group of clowns. Perhaps he fits in most comfortably with this group – for them, perspective is reality. We may not see a ball, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there. Similarly, there may not be a body, but that doesn’t mean a crime didn’t occur.
Maybe the clowns are good for our photographer. Maybe they will humble him, show him that what you see with your eyes isn’t everything. Or maybe they will just reinforce his egocentric vision of the world as it exists. Blow-Up isn’t expressly interested in a character arc, but that doesn’t mean one doesn’t occur anyway.