Movies can break all sorts of rules but they can’t cheat.
A film has to stick to an internal logic. For example, it can’t portray a photographer so obsessed with his calling that he even takes a camera with him to an antique shop and starts shooting off roll and after roll capturing the area’s rundown streets but then the one time he really could do with a camera – to prove there is a corpse at his feet – he is somewhat remiss. Especially when that the movie turns on that plot point.
Setting aside what’s a somewhat contrived snapshot of “Swinging London” there’s a lot to admire here. The absence of music for one thing. Most of the movie runs without musical accompaniment, a bold move since so often we rely on the soundtrack to provide guidance for a scene or an overlay for the entire film. Here, Michelangelo Antonioni (Zabriskie Point, 1970) makes us falls back on our own interpretation.
David Hemmings (The Charge of the Light Brigade, 1968), all mop-top and intense stare, is a high-flying high-living fashion photographer in the David Bailey mold (casual sex with wannabe models a perk) who turns investigator on being confronted in a park by Vanessa Redgrave (Hemmings’ adulterous love interest in The Charge of the Light Brigade) after taking snaps she wants back. Tension is sustained by her sudden appearance at his studio, willing to pay with her body for the return of the photos, and then by Hemmings’ careful, photo-by-photo blow-up-by-blow-up analysis that slowly comes closer to the truth.
Everything in his world is judged through a lens, as if he can capture elusive truths, and he has aspirations to being more than a mere fashion adjunct, having spent time taking portraits of down-and-outs. He judges Redgrave as he would a model, she has a good stance and sitting posture. Even by the standards of the permissive society, he is a bit of sexual predator, taking advantage of two giggly model wannabes – Jane Birkin (Wonderwall, 1968) and Gillian Hills (Three, 1969).
But the photography scenes are well done and Antonioni captures the intimacy between model and photographer that create the best images. If you want to see what a model brings to modeling check out real-life model Veruschka posing in an outfit held together by the thinnest of threads, bringing to life the much-touted notion that a model makes love to a camera. If you can get past the cheat and the deliberate obtuseness this creates – and the tsunami of artistic interpretations it inspired about the director’s intent – then it remains intriguing.
This isn’t Hemmings’ greatest work – Fragment of Fear is much better – but it certainly provided him with a marketable movie persona. Redgrave is excellent as the nervy woman willing to do what is required and the movie might have worked better had she had been allocated more screen time and their duel had continued through other scenes. But then that would have been Hitchcock and not Antonioni.
Sarah Miles (The Ceremony, 1963), Peter Bowles (The Charge of the Light Brigade) and John Castle (The Lion in Winter, 1968) have small parts. The film certainly captures the electricity of a photo shoot between a skilled photographer and pliant model, but it also works as an extended metaphor about the elusiveness of cinematic truth.
Despite my misgivings about the “cheat,” an intriguing and satisfying exploration of an artist seeking to jettison the fripperies of his art yet unable to avoid the temptation of enjoying the easy sexual benefits.