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Antonioni’s ‘Blow Up’ at Somerset House 

This summer marked 50 years since the psychedelic ‘Summer of Love’ of 1967. There wasn’t much evidence of a celebration in London however – maybe Highgate is just too far removed from Haight-Ashbury. However, in the neo-classical splendour of Somerset House recently, one Sixties icon attracted a huge crowd outdoors for its own fiftieth anniversary, even as the heavens opened.

As part of its classic Film 4 Summer Screen events, Somerset House staged an outdoor evening screening of the 1966 Antonioni classic, ‘Blow Up’, his first film in English. The tale of a cool photographer (Thomas, played by David Hemmings), bored by Swinging London and witness to a possible murder in a London park, the film looks very contemporary. Perhaps this is what drew the collection of millennial couples – bottle of wine and blankets in hand – as well as the warm-up DJ before the 15 certificate film. They were transfixed as Hemmings ventured from Stockwell Road to Charlton and Peckham, all now achingly cool in 2017.

Characterised by his white jeans and checked shirts, Hemmings takes part in a threesome with two models, enters into intrigue with Vanessa Redgrave (as the suspect/lover) and sexily photographs super-model Verushka (now modelling in Vogue again). Yet, what really holds his attention as he scopes London in his Rolls Royce Silver Cloud, is neither his Notting Hill studio nor Cheyne Walk Chelsea parties, bands and clothes, but his mission to discover if his ‘blown up’ photographs do finally reveal a murder. He photographs a couple in the park then studies his shots to uncover disturbing evidence. Is the scene real? What is his reality anyway? He returns to the park and finds a body.

As the film trailer says, “Sometimes, reality is the strangest fantasy of all.” This is what occupies Hemmings as he tries to convince his agent that he may have evidence of a murder. The agent is detached from reality at a drug-fuelled party. Hemmings feels he is the sole voice of sanity. He declares in one scene, “I am sick of those bitches.”

‘Blow Up’ looks vibrantly fresh – and well, 2017. The photographer’s flat boasts dark slate grey walls, camel print wallpaper, Orla Kiely type ornaments and a minimalist plain grey sofa. Peckham and Charlton’s Maryon Park are as much part of the Swinging London vibe as Chelsea.

With Brexit, the 2017 audience is left wondering whether London will stand up as one of the great world centres – what’s their place in it? Does the glamour of the capital compensate for the sometime spiritual emptiness of an urban sprawl? How much are we really part of what’s going on around us, if we ‘blow up’ our street scenes; how much are we players or onlookers – and does it actually matter?

Today, Antonioni’s film serves as much as a social commentary on London life as a pot-pourri of Instagram type fashion/music scenes of the period. It’s a London which hasn’t actually changed that much and one we’re still shaping. A London which both thrills, scares – and at times, bores us – all blown up.