Stylish, perceptive, fashionable; Antonioni’s almost-thriller murder-mystery is equal parts gratifying and unsatisfying. From the perspective of a swingin’ 60s London fashion photographer Thomas (David Hemmings) comes an avant-garde mixture of drama, comedy, and mystery that leaves the audience questioning what’s real and what’s just a product of personal perspective.
Thomas has it all: women throwing themselves at his feet for a chance to be photographed, a peer group of artists and models that let him roll-around half-naked with them in order to get the shot he needs, and a flippant attitude that lets him elapse from situation to situation without much compassion or care for those involved. He acts like he’s on top of the world, and those around him agree – until, that is, a woman he photographs in the park becomes particularly insistent that he return or destroy the roll of film he used on her immediately.
Jane (Vanessa Redgrave) is photographed having a private (or so she thought) play-around with an older man, when she sees Thomas walking off with his camera. He doesn’t care that she comes to complain, even snapping another photograph of her as she argues with him to give her the camera film. He refuses – he needs the photos to complete his book of humdrum black and white photography – and she runs off. The older man has vanished, and more quick shots are taken on Thomas’ camera of the whole affair.
The mysterious Jane appears and disappears throughout Thomas’ unfurling of the mystery behind the park photographs and why the woman is so desperate to have them destroyed; all the while he romps around town with his camera with an air of self-imposed importance. Unlikable and egotistical, Thomas is a perfect main character. Antonioni doesn’t try to create a hero, anti-hero, or a redemption arc, instead focusing on maintaining an engaging tale that delves into the concept of perception. The lens of Thomas’ camera shows what he can’t pick up with his own eye when he thinks he sees a man with a gun, hiding in the bushes by the couple he photographed in the park. As he blows up the photograph more and more, losing himself in the methodical process of film developing and image printing, the black and white shapes become more and more distorted. Thomas thinks he sees something else – a dead body of the man who disappeared after his confrontation with Jane? Or a blurry hedge in the background?
There are many theories for what Blow-Up is actually about, considering the peculiar ending that doesn’t leave much of a conclusion, and the seemingly disconnected interactions and scenes that may not tie in to the rest of the narrative upon first glance. It’s clear, though, that Antonioni has created a film about perception – illusion, hidden meanings, and truth behind the image and the personal perspective one has of any given situation. Thomas’ perception shifts throughout the film as he tries to at first evade Jane, and then uncover the truth about the murder; if there even was a murder, as Thomas’ uncovering of the dead body that suddenly disappears the next time he visits the park with his camera is just one of the many instances of Antonioni playing with Thomas, and in turn us as the audience.
The film ends not with Thomas solving the mystery, as his efforts are thwarted when his photographic evidence is stolen, but with a fake tennis match. Having resigned himself to never knowing the truth, Thomas happens upon a group of mimes watching two of theirown perform a silent tennis match, pretending to hit balls with rackets made of air. He looks on, and when one of the ‘tennis balls’ flies out of court and towards Thomas, he acts out of the motions of picking it up and throwing it back to them. The camera lingers on Thomas’ face as he watches the mimes carry on their game, the sounds of an actual ball now being heard hitting each racket, Thomas’ eyes watching the previously-invisible ball passing back and forth. The audience doesn’t see the scene, but it is heard – what does this say about perception, when Thomas is the one viewing the situation, a situation which we know not to exist?
Other instances that play with the illusion of perception are littered throughout Blow-Up, such as Thomas’ question to model Vanessa Redgrave – ‘I thought you were in Paris?’ ‘I am in Paris,’ she replies, despite the fact they’re attending a stylish London party. This precedes Thomas’ chase of the disappearing Jane, who seems to vanish after being spotted on the street. He ends up at a club where one of the musicians smashes his guitar; Thomas grabs the broken guitar neck and is chased by the frenzied crowd. When he loses them, he discards the guitar piece. It lost its previous meaning, became useless when once a hundred people wanted it, exactly how the various old items in the antique shop Thomas visits earlier are discarded. He purchases a large aeroplane propeller from the store, gets it delivered to his flat, and says he might use it as a piece of decorative furniture. It is never mentioned again; nor is the antique store that Thomas so urgently spoke about on the phone; nor is the guitar.
These seemingly random events are not random at all, as Antonioni uses each occurrence to produce an uncertainty about meaning, and thus perception. The perspective of each object is different, it changes, it becomes useless just as quickly as it became useful; just like the trends of fashion in Thomas’ photography job. He is almost bored and flippant about his work in the beginning, until he finds something to be interested in – the potential murder he may or may not have photographed – until that suddenly hits a dead end and he moves on. His attitudes and beliefs change with what he sees through the lens of the camera, an idea mirrored in the movements of both his own camera and the camera of the director.
We are teased with the murder-mystery set-up, hoping for some conclusive climax to solve the mystery, but instead it’s taken away just as quickly as it was built-up. The genre isn’t important, and nor are the characters; it is the notion of perception and meaning and their ever-changing essence that Antonioni cleverly feeds us in his fashionable and fun film.