Michelangelo Antonioni :: UK :: 1966 :: 1h50
Young fashion photographer Thomas (David Hemmings) takes a few pictures of a kissing couple in the park. The woman, Jane (Vanessa Redgrave), is appalled by the intrusion into her privacy and wants the pictures destroyed. The photographer’s curiosity has been tickled and on return to his studio prints and enlarges them to discover the images’ hidden treasure. He sees that he has photographed a murder. Or so he thinks.
This film is a masterpiece which thankfully is still being screened (in the Marais). You could read the script or a complete description of the unfolding events and still have to see it to make up your mind. Whichever way you turn it, the film is captivating and enigmatic. I will lift out some scenes from the film, to illustrate my interpretation. I hope it becomes clear enough to be able to compare it to your own.
— Contains SPOILERS —
To start with the opening scene: we are shown a group of mime players dancing and shouting around with painted faces, in a harsh clash with a dreary urban setting. In the next instant, we are shown paupers leaving a poorhouse in a deadly silence, spilling out onto the streets, their somber torn clothes blending into the grey brick as ants in the sand. A small group of them nod their goodbyes and disperse. One of them is left standing alone below the railway lines, holding a paper bag. He looks tired, underfed and shabby. As he sees the others disappear from sight, he looks around suspiciously and darts off down the road. He finds his car, a Rolls-Royce convertible, gets in, and drives off.
Sitting in his convertible, his face lights up. Driving around the corner, he runs into those dancing mime players which crowd around his car asking charitably for money. The man obliges, turning around to fish some money of the back seat, finding some bills lying loose amongst some old newspapers. Without looking at the paper money, he hands it to them and they run off shouting and laughing with joy. He drives off thrilled at his return to normal life. In the background you see a bum walking by a closed iron gate.
The opening scene tells quite something about Thomas and thrusts a critical look at British society upon us at the same time. The grey depressing world is a ruthless one of haves and have-nots. Thomas clearly belongs to the lucky few group, after that masterful touch of decadence in not only driving away from the poorhouse in a Rolls, but having left money on the back bench too. Thomas obviously has no scruples lying to people (faking poverty) to get what he wants (their pictures). When he discusses the pictures he took there afterwards with his editor, it is clear that sympathy is not their motivating force. He says he is bored and fed up with the city and the women who he treats badly. Thomas is a modern dandy of sorts who has no friends and can only see people as objects, as means to an end, a financial one or for amusement. He feels trapped in his own disinterest, which is perhaps reinforced by his superficial fashion photography world. He tells his editor at some point: “I wish I had tons of money, then I’d be free”. It is as if he is at the pinnacle of the capitalistic pyramid but he is so alone that he does not see it anymore. He needs more money? And what would he need that freedom for? To do what? In this world of the poor and the bored, where should he run to anyway?
Later on he falls in love with an antique propellor (a dream to fly away?) and buys it promptly. The owner of the shop is selling everything to flee from her own life. The owner is a young, beautiful girl with rosy cheeks who says she is fed up with antiques and want to run to somewhere were there are less objects. She wants to embark on that journey to search for some meaning, something away from the superficial consumer society she feels herself to be taken in by. Basically, she is as existentially bored as he is. You might think this would strike a chord with Thomas, but he treats her as he does everyone else, he does not care as long as she does what he wants.
The movie could be taken as an anti-capitalistic statement, of the sort which was common in the 60s. Besides the grand sketches of the disillusioned wealthy wondering around in a black impoverished industrial London, small telling details are also thrown in. When Thomas finds himself in a concert hall, with an audience staring at the band as dummies staring at customers form a window display, the guitarist decides to smash up his guitar. When he is done venting his adolescent frustration, he lungs the neck of the guitar into the audience. They suddenly spring alive and fight for the little piece of rock-and-roll history. Thomas manages to hold on to it and runs for the door. Once outside, he no longer sees the interest in the, just seconds ago, so coveted object. He had taken it because everyone wanted it, but now that the chase is over, what good is it? He throws it away and leaves. A passerby picks it up to examine it. It has become just a piece of garbage now. The object only had value when it was desired, when the audience gave it value. Without the audience it becomes just the worthless piece of a guitar that it is.
So how should some meaning be found in this dull life? He is taken into a conversation with an artist he knows who makes impressionist paintings. The artist explains that his paintings have no meaning when he makes them, but that they gain something afterwards, “like finding a clue in a detective story”. This is a hint as to what Thomas will go through.
Strolling through the park, he sees a woman kissing her lover and decides to take pictures of them. She begs him to destroy them but to no avail, his moral can not be wavered by pity. But his interest, on the other hand, is sparked. On his return to the house, he prints and enlarges the pictures to find what was so important about them. The pictures become so large, they are just grains on paper like his friend’s impressionist paintings. They could be anything. And he sees a body. And he sees the killer in the bushes with a gun. His photography has meaning after all. Reality is shining through his own photograph as never before. It is no longer the make-belief world of marketing, but real life. He feels alive. He calls on his editor to tell him the exciting news, but finds him in a luxurious apartment, in the midst of a drug-fuelled party where nobody cares about anything or anyone. He might finally have something real, something that matters, on his hands, but even that might not be enough. Or perhaps some kind of humane reality will befall him?
There are many little gems and story traces to be found scattered around the film, but I will leave that you. It might not seem like a coherent whole at first, but the more you think about it, the more the movie makes sense. Thomas is an unappealing character, or at least not a caring one, lost in grand world. He is quickly distracted, with different scenes lingering on in your mind after he left them because he never finished them. He is like Marcello Mastrioanni in Felinni’s 8 ½, where he excuses himself constantly, escaping from every conversation initiated with him. The movie’s photography isolates him in big images, often leaving him alone in the scene. There is something of the loneliness and emptiness all the way through, but at the end you, though still there, you are rewarded with a unique closing shot. A curious script it must have been but a brilliant film is the result. I highly recommend it.