The voyeur is corrosively deconstructed in Antonioni’s seminal British-Italian prize-winner.
An unmistakable work of cultural insight, Italian auteur Michelangelo Antonioni’s pioneering 1966 mystery thriller, Blow-Up, returns to the Croisette as part of the festival’s prestigious Cannes Classics programme; some fifty years after claiming the Palme d’Or. And yet, despite its age, the director’s first English-language film still feels fresh; piercing with its relevance and applicability. Whilst many quite rightly cite Blow-Up as one of the great cinema time capsules, so much of Antonioni’s hedonistic odyssey could have been made yesterday, or tomorrow.
In a career of iconography, few screen characters brought to life by David Hemmings are quite as potent. Here he plays Thomas, a mod photographer operating in London, whose work captures the thriving youth culture of the time. Shrouded in sexual promiscuity, pounding music, alarming fashion, and relaxed drug misuse, Thomas’ life is far from boring, and yet he feels unfulfilled; his lens feverishly snapping, yet failing to convey a sense of clarity. But over the course of a single day, things take a vastly compelling, and dangerous, turn when he finds something suspicious in the mysterious photographs he has taken of a beautiful women. Studying the negatives, Thomas later realises he has accidentally acquired visual proof of a murder.
Such a treat is it to see Antonioni’s film back in the festival theatres, and most impressive is how at home it is, too. Blow-Up is an extremely cinematic piece; a layered, meticulously orchestrated study, founded upon the most delicately observed mise en scène. There is little wonder as to why the great Italian’s work is frequented in Film Studies classes, as every single frame ensures the development and density of its subjects, and their scenarios. Nothing is of chance, besides Thomas’ photograph of course, and such control ensures the audience understand the magnitude of the artist in operation. Antonioni is an incredible filmmaker – a revolutionary one in fact – with features such as 1960’s L’Avventura, or 1970’s Zabriskie Point, being just two fine examples.
What strikes so potently however is just how forward-thinking Blow-Up‘s approach to technology is. The camera is a window, and the weapon of choice for the voyeur. Much like Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) or Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960), Antonioni’s mystery underpins the most sordid of desires; our obsessive need to spy, and with our ever-developing access to portable devices, we are becoming more reliant on living through another every single day. Sure, Instagram and Facebook weren’t things in the 1960s, but you’d be hard-pressed to watch this without thinking you’ve been guilty of such behaviours. Blow-Up‘s supple and timely storytelling takes a critical look at the unrepentant male chauvinist protagonist, and how his obsession with visual recording technology can shape and warp reality. In many ways, there is a Thomas in all of us; the difference is now we don’t need patience and camouflage to score a money-making shot.
After a solid introduction, which provides the spectator enough detail on the somewhat sleazy lifestyle lead by our hero, Blow-Up finds the most effective of rhythms when we enter the second. Dialogue almost entirely vanishes, and we are allowed to burrow under Thomas’ slippery façade as he silently – and manically – inflates negative images, scanning every inch for some clues or insight. His self-inflicted possession is intoxicating; each photograph enlargement pulling him further and further into a blackened abyss. By extension, and thanks to Antonioni’s supreme use of eyeline editing, these still photos become three-dimensional for the viewer, letting us track who or what Vanessa Redgrave’s Jane (the object of Thomas’ earlier voyeurism) is looking at in fear. The ambiguity and anxiety remains until the curtain is called, even when we’ve started to figure out how the puzzle fits together.
Antonioni’s seminal piece is a beautiful synthesis of plot, theme, and character. Thomas has a hole inside himself which he desperately wants to fill. He tries with women, he tries with antiques, he tries with smashed guitars. At first-blush, each of these seems to be the answer to his prayers. Yet on closer inspection, they’re just diversions. The hole is still there. The hole will always be there.