Blow-Up (Antonioni, 1966) is an exploration of watching and being watched, looking and being looked at. Director Michelangelo Antonioni investigates the subjectivity and fallibility of our vision, asking the viewer if anything is ever truly what it appears to be. And his setting of the film around the life of a self absorbed and unlikeable photographer in 60’s London links it back to Laura Mulvey’s theories on Freud. Scopophilia, voyeurism, fetishism and narcissism are all present here.
The entire film could be viewed as a discussion on scopophilia, the pleasure of looking. The early scene in which Antonioni’s protagonist, the photographer Thomas, shoots a model, Veruschka, is so overtly sexual it almost appears to be a parody. And the murder mystery plot of the film delves into the pleasure (and dangers) of watching and understanding what it is that we see. The excitement that Thomas feels when he discovers what he witnessed in the park is even more powerful than the lure of looking at beautiful women.
The camerawork often forces the audience to confront our own scopophilia by showing us Thomas’ reaction to a scene before showing us the scene itself. A notable example occurs in a scene late in the film when Thomas returns to the park to photograph the body, only to find that it isn’t there. We see a long shot of Thomas approaching the bush where the body had previously been lying, but it’s difficult for the audience to distinguish whether it’s still there. Antonioni then cuts to a close-up of Thomas’ face as he rounds the bush. We’re shown his reaction, his shocked face and we think that we know what he’s seeing, but Antonioni holds the close-up, forcing the audience to wait to see Thomas’ point of view, making us hold our breath with anticipation.
A definition of voyeurism could be illustrated simply by playing the sequence in which Thomas photographs the two lovers in the park. And it’s highlighted on when he hides these photographs (on an undeveloped roll of film) from Jane when she comes to collect them, preferring to develop and view them secretly. The short scene in which he watches his partner (wife?) having sex with another man, while she is initially unaware of his gaze, serves to further highlight the voyeuristic undercurrent to the film.
Fetishism is demonstrably present in the way women are portrayed in the film. Many (if not all) are little more than props, existing only to serve as objects of Thomas’ and the audience’s sexual desire. The models are an obvious representation of this, commanded and moved as a necessary nuisance for Thomas’ photography. The scene in which two young models return to his studio to have their photographs taken, but instead end up rolling around naked with him is a perfect example; the models’ consent is ambiguous at best. Whether they are fighting him off or inviting him to join them is unclear and it doesn’t even seem to matter, their desires are unimportant. Even Jane, by far the most complex female character in the film, is often a static presence, placed to be looked at.
Thomas personifies narcissism. His self absorption and detachment is depicted throughout the film, from the way in which he treats the models and his agent Ron, to the fact that his name is never spoken and that he shoots only in black and white. The mime artists who appear periodically through the film, notably at the start and end, only ever interact with him. Are they a representation of his own mindset, does he only see objects and actions in the way in which they relate to him?
Time and its representation on film is also an important theme in Blow-Up. The film appears to be set over a 24 hour period, starting on a Saturday morning and ending the following day, but there are many small details which leaves us unsure as to whether the time frame is as simple as it appears. The most obvious is perhaps that the opening credits run over a shot of a grassy park, which we later find is the final scene of the film. But also the scenes with the model Veruschka who, at the start of the film tells Thomas that she has to be in Paris that evening, and later when he sees her at a party in London he asks why she hasn’t gone, she retorts “but I am in Paris?” (Antonioni, 1966).
Similarly the scenes with the two teenage wannabe models are chronologically unsettling. They arrive at Thomas’ studio early in the film and are sent away. They return later and are sent away again (after the sexually ambiguous scene described above). They are disappointed not to have been photographed and Thomas tells them to come back “tomorrow, tomorrow” (Antonioni, 1966), but the girls seem dissatisfied, as if this has happened before. The effect is of a repetitive cycle, a loop in which they return every day, but are never photographed. And the appearance of the mimes at the start and end exaggerate this sense of the film as an endless loop or cycle.
Antonioni extends his musing on the caution with which we must treat what we see to how we view and perceive art. The scene at the Yardbirds concert where the audience switches from static and apparently untouched to rabid devotees highlights how the subjectivity of our vision affects our interpretation of what makes art ‘good’. The sequence immediately following the concert in which Thomas manages to grab a piece of the broken guitar, but then throws it away on the street serves to reinforce the point.
Antonioni, M., (1966) Blow-Up, Bridge Films