Review of Blow-Up

Blow-Up (1966)
A remarkable and fascinating film
26 July 2017
Warning: Spoilers
Blow Up gives no clues as to where it's going. The first 20 minutes require patience. We wonder why we see 'revellers' at Paternoster Square in their Land Rover and in the London city streets.

Scenes at a doss house introduce us to Hemmings, a disaffected, shallow, but very well-off fashion photographer in 1966 'swinging London'. He is conceited and misogynistic, a dislikeable creation.

Hemmings' (famous) scene with his top model culminates with him standing astride the model laying on the floor in a faux sexual pose snapping his camera shouting for more. All very overt…. Then there is a faux post-coital resolution as Hemmings sits exhausted on his studio sofa whilst the model remains on the floor deflated and somewhat used. Possibly, this scene is included in order to show aspects of the societal norms in which it is created; permissive, impermanent, male-dominated, all exemplified through Hemmings. A further photoshoot with a collection of waxwork like female models dressed à la mode reinforces this.

Hemmings visits an artist friend nearby. His art is analytic cubist in the style of 1908-14 Braque or Picasso, which requires the viewer to draw their own conclusions, or impose them. He says, "They don't mean anything…. Afterwards I find something to hang on to…. Then it sorts itself out, adds up. It's like finding a clue in a detective story." Later, we reflect on this.

Hemmings visits an old antique shop that he is looking to acquire. In the claustrophobic room, we see lots of small statues and heads. If we take stock - like the work of Hemmings' artist friend, the film so far seems abstract lacking any focus.

Leaving the shop, Hemmings finds himself drawn to a nearby park. We first see Hemmings from behind, taking photos, approaching the park. Then we see him from inside through 4 large trees that look like the bars of a cage. The mood created is suddenly different; there is a brilliant use of the greens of the trees and grass. The sound of the wind heightens our senses as viewers, and Hemmings' senses. Trees are filmed blowing in the wind and their sound, with no dialogue, pervades the next minutes, building atmosphere superbly. Hemmings is enlivened and wants to capture it.

In a secluded part of the park, Hemmings notices two "lovers". Intrigued, he tries to photograph their cavorting. Unsatisfied, he tries to get closer. We don't quite see what he sees; instead we watch him, watching them. The female looks around nervously to see if anyone else is nearby. She doesn't notice Hemmings. The white noise of the trees, and this changed emphasis of the film onto figures behaving in a much more human and intimate way, with Hemmings' watching, is quite brilliant. With a few simple but highly charged shots, Antonioni has built emotional tension between viewer and viewed (Hemmings and the couple), and again viewer and viewed (us and these scenes).

The female of the couple, Redgrave, notices Hemmings and runs to challenge him. She resents his activities and wants the film, she says; "we haven't met, you've never seen me". Hemmings, unsurprisingly, doesn't care. Redgrave wants the film – so much that she bites his hand to try to get it. This is a very strong reaction! He totally ignores her and goes back to taking photos. The male companion does not come to assist Redgrave, he's nowhere to be seen. Redgrave runs off. We are still not sure where this is all going….

Redgrave has followed Hemmings. She finds his studio. There are some disconcerting scenes here; Redgrave will do anything to get that film. Hemmings gives her the wrong film. Redgrave shapes to seduce Hemmings, but before she can, the incongruous propeller he bought earlier at the shop is delivered. Eventually, after they smoke some dope, Redgrave leaves with 'the film'. Like us, Hemmings begins to wonder; 'what is so pressing about that film from the park'? Highly intriguing. But more is to follow.

Hemmings develops the film and looks with increasing interest at the images that appear totally innocuous at first…

More scenes follow that serve to confuse; there is a ménage à trois which is quite distasteful and seems out of place. Hemmings returns to the park. He drives into town. He thinks he sees Redgrave in Regent Street. She disappears. He tries to find her. Instead, he happens on The Yardbirds playing a seedy club somewhere behind Carnaby Street. The trendy dressed, mannequin-like audience are oddly passive until Jeff Beck smashes his guitar and tosses it into the crowd, who go berserk to grab the pieces. There is an extended scene at a party where dope is smoked openly.

The final scenes are quite remarkable.

After the party, Hemmings returns once more to the park. Again, the wind blows the trees… He is confused and deflated. The revellers arrive in their Land Rover, and again behave strangely. Two of them play a game of mime tennis while the others watch silently. There is no ball. Again, we watch Hemmings watching others. This time though the mood is different. The imaginary 'ball' flies over the fence, onto the grass, and Hemmings is silently summoned to fetch and throw it back. The camera tracks the 'ball' – so we also 'see' the 'ball'. Why? Because we put it there with our minds. We watch Hemmings throw it, we watch him watching it, and follow as it bounces back into play. Like him, we have joined the illusion… We hear a real ball bouncing. Then, Hemmings disappears. It's the most enigmatic ending.

The tennis game is the paradigm for the story; What exactly have we been watching? A momentary dream? An illusion? Maybe the reality was what we put in it, how we interpreted it, and when we watched, we saw just what we wanted to see….

An extraordinary and powerful cinematic experience.
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