Back in the day we would discuss for hours the significance of Thomas (David Hemmings) fetching an invisible tennis ball after having photographed an invisible murder. Then later we scrutinized the thematic relationship of Blow-Up to Antonioni's great trilogy of L'Avventura (1960), La Notte (1961), and L'Eclisse (1962). More recently, Blow-Up has figured large in discussions of the "male gaze." But lately it has become a historical artifact from a time and place half a century ago, the "swinging London" of the mid-1960s. And there I think it best belongs. What perhaps needs to be discussed is the tone of the film: Is it a document, or a celebration, or an exposé, or a satire? I think it is a bit of all of these, but mostly the tone is satiric. Thomas's aesthetic detachment, not to say voyeurism, makes him the perfect vehicle for an exploration of the era, from the grim flophouse he spends a night photographing to the drug-addled home of the wealthy, by way of a fashion shoot, a glimpse of what seems to be adulterous affair but may be a murder, a mini-orgy with some teenyboppers, a peek at two of his friends making love, and a performance in a rock club. All of it viewed with the impassive gaze of Thomas, Antonioni, and Carlo Di Palma's movie camera. Is it meant to be funny? Yes, sometimes, as when Thomas encounters the model Verushka at the party and says, "I thought you were supposed to be in Paris," and she replies, "I am in Paris." Or when we see the audience watching the performance of the Yardbirds in the club, showing no signs of enjoyment, but then going crazy when Jeff Beck smashes his guitar and flings it into the audience. Thomas escapes from the club with a piece of it, eludes the pursuing crowd, but throws it away when he realizes it's worthless. (A passerby picks it up, looks it it, and tosses it away.) It's a portrait of a cynical era in which people, as Oscar Wilde put it, know "the price of everything and the value of nothing." Hemmings, with his debauched choirboy* face, is the perfect protagonist, and Vanessa Redgrave, at the start of her career, is beautifully, magnificently enigmatic as the woman who may or may not have been involved in murder. I'm not sure it's a great film -- certainly not in comparison to Antonioni's trilogy -- but it will always be a fascinating one.
*Almost literally: Hemmings started as a boy soprano who was cast by Benjamin Britten in several works, most notably as Miles in the 1954 opera The Turn of the Screw. He can be heard on the recording made that year with Britten conducting.