I’d mentioned back when I covered A Night At The Opera that a college friend, Jeff, dragged me to see it after hearing I hadn’t. This was the other film he dragged me to see – but in that case, he was furthering my musical education; the band The Yardbirds make a brief appearance in the last 20 minutes of the film. I’m pretty sure, though, that most of the rest of the film went straight over my head, and I must have been pelting him with questions during the walk home. There’s an entire sequence at an antique shop that I had absolutely no memory about on this rewatch.
It’s not surprising I didn’t remember it, though. The first half of the film takes a pretty desultory approach – fitting, as it’s about a desultory man. Thomas (David Hemmings) is a London photographer – he’s successful doing work in fashion, but it bores him, sometimes to the point that he walks out on his own shoots and heads off to do the more artistic work he really wants. On one such day he heads to a London park, strolling and capturing whatever catches his eye – including some photos of a couple embracing under a tree. The woman (Vanessa Redgrave) spots him and confronts him, demanding the film; he refuses, then escapes when she starts running after him. But the woman is persistent and manages to find his studio, turning up later that afternoon and persuading him to give her the film. At one point she even tries seducing him for it. That just makes Thomas even more curious – and after sending the woman off with a bait-and-switch trick, he develops it, studying his photos of the couple, blowing them up bigger and bigger so he can see even more detail – including what looks like the woman glancing nervously into the trees. Thomas blows up just that section of his photos even further, and has another look – and sees what looks an awful lot like a man with a pistol. Now he really wants to know what’s going on.
I think part of why I didn’t “get” the film in college is that I was focusing on sorting out the mystery. What had Thomas seen? How did the woman find his studio? Who was she? Who was her lover? What was happening? ….But the mystery itself isn’t the point – it’s how the pursuit of the mystery is the only time we see Thomas or anyone around him look excited about anything. The models in his studio look utterly bored. Thomas is bored with them (even the cute ones he tries to make out with). His agent is bored with him. The antique shop owner is bored. The guests at a party he crashes are all either bored, or stoned. Even the audience at that Yardbirds appearance looks bored until Jeff Beck smashes his guitar onstage. This is a Michaelangelo Antonioni comment on ennui again, with privileged people briefly getting startled by something unusual – but then their friends and fellows don’t get what the big deal is, so they go back to their boring familiar lives and leave the mystery unsolved.
At least with this, there’s something of a solution to the mystery. At the very end of the film, Thomas runs into a carload of mimes; they’ve turned up once or twice before in the film, all piled into a car and careening through London causing low-level mischief. At the end, they spot Thomas walking past a tennis court and all pile out to give him a private performance of a mimed tennis match. His reaction to their performance suggests that he’s rethinking everything that’s just happened, leading us to do the same.
….That’s what Jeff said, anyway, but years later I’m inclined to agree.
2 thoughts on “Blow-Up (1966)”
One point is that people’s existence is defined through meaningful human relations and Thomas has none and therefore he could just as well not exist. All the things he does to fill the gap mean nothing.
Classic Antonioni motif.
Indeed – although that was a little too deep for me to “get” when I was only 19!