Recently I happened to watch Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up again, a 1966 film which sparked a lot of controversy but nonetheless gained institutional recognition by winning the Palme d’Or at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival. Rewatching the film made me realise that – without being strictly about music or dance — both elements are distinctively imbued within its narration. Dance, historically speaking, was at a moment of opening up to new forms of expression, incorporating the ‘ordinary’, changing our perception of the dancing body, its gestural nuances and the theatricality of the everyday life. From this perspective, Blow-Up appears as a studious, filmic essay about moving images and movement, the conditioning of the gaze and the multiple perceptional levels of reality. While the film’s progression is based on an incidental close-up, I am opting here for a more intentional close-up on the final scene. Unlike that of the hero Thomas (David Hemmings), my scrutiny reveals no hidden truth or deception; just a frivolous interest for moving bodies in moving pictures.
Blow-Up is about a young fashion photographer with a superstar aura, who dedicates his spare time to photographing a far less glamorous aspect of London’s metropolitan life. The film goes into overdrive when Thomas, after meticulously examining a photo of a couple in a park, discovers that the idyll between the lovers is only a delusion. He has accidentally documented —according to his interpretation of these ‘still-life’ events— a murder case. He quickly becomes morbidly obsessed with connecting the ‘dots’, in his case, the highly magnified details of that shooting in the park. But the coarse-grained image is hardly a document for a murder case. The more his obsession grows, the more elusive the details appear. Just like in pointillism, the more you focus on the dots the less you understand what the image is about. Deception lies within reality, or to put it in Slavoj Žižek’s words, desire is a wound of reality.
The final scene takes place in the park. Drifting aimlessly, somehow defeated by the lack of evidence to support his murder case, Thomas is turned into an accomplice of another, much more playful scene. A troupe of mimes in white facepaint stop by in their car and a young couple emerge spontaneously to enter a tennis court. The rest of the group gathers around the court fence as if a tennis match is about to take place, but without rackets or even a ball. Instead, the couple/players use their swaying arms to pretend to hit the ball, backstepping and jumping to deliver the physicality of a ‘real’ game to the silent crowd, who watch their pas de deux attentively. This type of realness is very convincing, becoming once again a go-between between reality and representation.
The couple doesn’t negotiate the falsity of the game; nor does the crowd, who abide by the rules of this bizarre spectacle. The players fake their intensity, running to return a shot, taking the correct striking posture, crouching to suggest the change in their playing stance. They even gesticulate furiously when they miss hitting the ball, raising their hands in despair when the opponent takes a lead; the drama is on.
Thomas, unconvinced by the credulity of the crowd, now faces the challenge of crossing a line, and so seeing things differently. When the ball exits the tennis court, one of the mimes points to it, inviting Thomas to retrieve it. Reluctantly, he jogs towards the ball, weighs it in his hand and throws it back. This is the moment that Antonioni’s brilliance prevails: he doesn’t now turn the camera back to the court, but rather dramaturgically cements the impression of the game by focusing on Thomas’s face. Through his gaze, we enter the whole theatre apparatus.
Ultimately, the ball becomes a synonym for the ‘missing dots’ and invites us to think how dance-theatre is not just a replicate but a magnifier of life, giving us a perceptual frame to play with and thus investigate the fluid boundaries between spectacle and reality. It also reminds us that art, being elliptical in its interpretations, makes things real once we decide to enter the game. ●