We then have a cut to what looks like working class men coming out of the “National Assistance Board” office. These sad looking males are on welfare. Thomas (David Hemmings) appears to be an impoverished derelict, but as the group of men move away from the building, Thomas sneaks away from them, and then drives away in a Rolls Royce. He has an expensive camera that he puts in his glove compartment. Thomas turns out to be a respected photographer who was passing as a street person in order to take pictures of the seedier side of London. Thomas seeks to reveal the underside of things, but he does it in an exploitative way. He has no sympathy for his subjects, but only sees them as food to feed his artistic appetite.
Thomas then looks at his photos of the men on welfare. He is happy with them, and then tells an assistant to burn the crappy clothes he was wearing to blend in with the men. He then bullies other female models, telling one to “get rid” of her chewing gum, but “not on my floor.” He manhandles one model by grabbing her leg forward after saying “terrible!” To Thomas, the women are like puppets which he manipulates. He tells another that she should thank her lucky stars she is working for him. He is abusive while at the same time he, ironically, yells at them to “Smile!” He tells the models to close their eyes, as if they are not alive, when he leaves. It’s as if they don’t exist outside of his artistic realm. The implication here is that artists insensitively use people for their own purposes.
Thomas does seem to be respectful toward a fellow artist, his painter neighbor, Bill (John Castle). Bill says that when he completes his work he doesn’t appreciate it at first, but later a part of it emerges and “it sorts itself out and it adds up. It’s like finding a clue in a detective story.” His statement foreshadows what occurs later, but it also shows how trying to understand art is like trying to unravel a puzzle, which mimics the artist’s attempt to solve the truth behind what he or she has depicted. Bill says he hasn’t figured out one of his paintings, like it is a subconscious expression that he hasn’t consciously understood yet. Thomas wants to buy that work, or have Bill give it to him, but he tells Thomas no. Thomas’ zeal for discovery makes him want to solve the riddle himself, but he would be usurping Bill’s position, and he has to make his own breakthroughs.
Thomas returns to his studio where there are two girls who jump as soon as he enters, like windup dolls, wanting a chance to be models. He is dismissive of them, continuing his lack of concern for the feelings of others. He drives around, observing, looking for new subjects to explore through the lens of his camera, which is like an enhanced mechanical version of his inquisitive artistic eye. He stops at an antique store bursting with items. The proprietor acts like he doesn’t really want customers, as if he wishes to hold onto his artwork, saying there are no bargains here. Thomas says he’s looking for pictures, but the man says he has “no pictures.” Then, in a reversal of what he just said, asks Thomas what kind of pictures are he looking for. Thomas says landscapes, but the man says there are “no landscapes.” However, there is one on the wall. The man says they are all sold. Maybe all artistic types are protective of their pieces. But, the scene also shows how Thomas, the artist, goes beyond what is told to seek out the reality of the situation. Later, when he returns to the shop, he sees an airplane propeller, and feels compelled to buy it. The antique store is a sort of metaphor for the collage art in fashion at the time. But, modern art, in the form of cubism, tried to say that there was an enhanced reality beyond what the eye saw, and it attempted to present all facets and angles of objects at one time. In this chaotic presentation that overwhelms the senses, we, the observers of this artistic form, zero in on a familiar object to gain a foothold on the unfamiliar reality presented before us. In a way, Thomas’ wanting the propeller is his attempt to anchor himself in the refracted perception of his present existence.
Thomas walks around and comes across a park. He sees a man and a woman going up a hill. Thomas runs up some steps playfully, his photographer’s inquisitiveness making him act like an exuberant child having fun. The man and the woman are in in front of a fence and a building, and the scene looks like a tableau as the two are motionless for a while. Antonioni poses his subjects in a story about a photographer, who also wants to crate art through contrivance with the use of altering lenses, staging, and lighting. Thomas is like a voyeur with the couple, as are filmmakers and their audiences. The couple kiss. The woman, Jane (Vanessa Redgrave), sees Thomas as he goes away and she chases him, saying he can’t just photograph people without consent (what a contrast to today’s world where all are under surveillance). He says he’s just doing his job, which for him selfishly justifies any invasion of privacy. She says it’s a public place where one should be able to be left in peace. He says, “it’s not my fault there is no peace.” His response reflects the tumultuous world of the time where there was no refuge. She tries to grab his camera, but then runs away.
Thomas meets his agent, Ron (Peter Bowles) in a restaurant and shows the shots of the men on welfare. They are black and white shots revealing depressing impoverishment. Thomas is compiling shots for a book and wants to finish it with the green park and the couple so it will end peacefully in contrast to the “violence” of the earlier pictures. Ron says that the ordering seems more real, but it isn’t because, again, it’s manipulated. The artist’s job is to highlight aspects of the world, not reproduce visual replicas. As the two discuss whether having lots of money is the key to freedom, which is antithetical to the prevailing hippie philosophy of the time, Thomas, ever observant, sees a man checking out his Rolls. There are protesters walking in the street with signs advocating nuclear disarmament but there is a policeman walking next to them, again showing different social elements in the same film frame, and stressing the prevailing culture clash. The protestors put one of their signs in Thomas’ Rolls, which gets blown away and left in the street, emphasizing that Thomas cares more about how his photography captures, in a way owns, the outside world, without his becoming involved in its struggles.
Jane, from the park, shows up at Thomas’ flat/studio asking for the film he shot of her and the man she was with. He says he “needs” the pictures, like his demands as a photographer come first. She says her life is already a disaster, and the pictures will make it worse. His response is an uncaring “So what?” He insightfully adds that one needs a little disaster to sort things out, which hearkens back to what his painter neighbor said about how eventually one can make sense out of nonsense. He then says that he thinks she can do modeling, which implies reducing her into another object for his lens. The phone rings and Thomas acts it’s for Jane. But then he says it’s his wife and he tells his wife that the woman he’s with doesn’t want to talk with her, which again shows his insensitivity. He then goes on with a series of contradictions, saying it was not his wife, but he has kids with her. He then says that’s not true, he doesn’t have children. He says that she is easy to live with, then says no, and actually doesn’t live with her. This short speech seems to reinforce the the movie’s theme about how difficult it is to get to the reality beneath appearances. While they listen to jazz, Jane moves to the music. Thomas then directs her, manipulates her, and he becomes a surrogate for Antonioni, wanting her to move the way he wants her to. She tries to defy his manipulation by attempting to leave with the camera when he is not in the room, but he is waiting for her in the hallway, saying he is “not a fool.” Many artists, because they create, think of themselves as gods, having power over the subjects in their work. She assumes he wants sex before he will release the film, so she takes off her top. But, he is emotionally detached and tells her to get dressed. He says he’ll give the film to her, but provides her with a different roll, again controlling the situation for his purposes.
Thomas develops the film. He blows up the shots, and his magnified scrutiny changes what the average person might see, just as the filmmaker’s use of varying camera angles, focus, lighting, etc., change the nature of reality. Thomas sees that Jane is looking off to the side while hugging the man. Was Jane there to set up the man to be killed? He calls Jane, but she gave him a fake number. (Which shows how one must be careful because a deceiver can also be deceived, and which confirms how difficult it is to unearth what is buried beneath the surface). He discovers that there is a man in the trees in one picture holding a gun (possibly the same man who was checking out his Rolls?). He calls Ron, his agent, and says he came upon somebody trying to kill someone, and he probably stopped it from happening by butting in. He appears to be trying to justify his intrusive ways by arguing that art can rescue the living. However, all he is really excited about is discovering some truth in what he caught on film.
The two girls, who previously appeared hoping for a chance at modeling, show up at Thomas’ flat. They go through the models’ outfits. One tries to put on a dress, and Thomas tussles with her. Then the other girl becomes jealous of Thomas’ attention, and then they have a raucous fight, knocking over his photo backdrop. The scene is the opposite of the kind of control Thomas likes to exert, but even in this chaotic scene, he has orchestrated the mayhem. He looks at the photos blown up on the wall again, and now, obsessed with his craft, seems to be oblivious of the women. He then dismisses the girls so he can scrutinize the pictures, unsure of what he sees, but it appears that he did not prevent the crime because there is a form that looks like a body on the ground.
Thomas drives at night back to where he photographed Jane and the man. He finds a dead man near the trees. He appears to be the guy Jane was with. He hears a twig snapping. Or is it the sound of a gun cocking, or maybe the shutter of a camera? Is Thomas being photographed, and is he now being used as the subject of someone else's subject of investigation? He runs back to his studio, which has been tossed, with the negatives and prints gone except for one large, unrevealing photograph of the park scene. When the context is taken away, the image seems meaningless. Could his place have been broken into by the guy who was checking out his Rolls? Maybe the man is the murderer and is conspiring with Jane, looking for the film. Thomas visits the artist neighbor’s house again, but the man is making love with his girlfriend. Thomas looks at the painting Bill said didn’t make sense to him yet, which reflects how Thomas is trying to figure out what his photography might reveal. Bill’s lover then shows up at Thomas’ place. He says that someone was shot, but he didn't see it, only his camera revealed it. She looks at the remaining blown up photo, which is distorted, and she comments that it looks like one of the Bill’s paintings. Thomas agrees. She asks Thomas why did the man get shot? Thomas says he didn’t ask, and then she leaves. Life is enigmatic and it’s not the point of art to explain it, but only to present its possibilities.
Thomas searches for Ron, his agent. He goes to a club where a rock band plays, which turns out to be the real group, The Yardbirds, with then members Jimmy Page (later of Led Zeppelin), and Jeff Beck. The scene looks unreal, with audience members resembling mannequins, like Thomas’models, except for a couple dancing out of step. It’s as if the world has turned into one of Thomas’ creations, or more accurately Antonioni’s, and any attempt at mirroring what passes for mundane reality has disappeared. The band has their song interrupted by static in the speaker. Beck, angry with how his music is being subverted by outside problems, destroys his guitar, and throws it into the audience. (Peter Townsend of the rock group The Who, also exerting life and death over his art, but also performing an iconoclastic act of rebellion, used to destroy his guitars). The audience now becomes animated, and the scene turns into a riot as people try to get the remains of the instrument. Thomas, the photographic artist, a kindred spirit, appropriately, acquires the detached guitar neck and runs out with it. Perhaps in the moment it is like the propeller, an object used as a point of reference amid chaos. He tosses it away in front of a store window filled with mannequins, which again points to the artist turning people into a means to display his work (sort of like the way Daniel Day Lewis’ character uses women in Phantom Thread).
Thomas then arrives at a party where he finds Ron who is totally stoned, in his own way escaping reality. The first model we saw in the film is there, too. Thomas comments that she said she was supposed be in Paris. She says she is, which emphasizes that the movie is a work of art, and is not reflective of literal meaning. Thomas, struggling to find some ultimate truth behind the appearance of reality, says he wants to show Ron the corpse, possibly in an attempt to have someone verify his version of what he saw, and get a shot of it. He is not concerned about contacting the police, but only wants to use the death for his photography. After Ron questions him by asking, “What did you see in that park?” Thomas seems to give up trying to get help in understanding the overwhelming mystery of the external world, and says “nothing.” He seeks escape by going to sleep on a bed.
The next day, Thomas goes back to the park with his camera. However, the body is gone, as if he missed the moment of clarity. The film ends as it began with the return of the rowdy young people again overflowing the jeep, symbolizing a cyclical timeline which does not move toward a linear solution. They pass Thomas and invade a tennis court, where two of their group engage in mime tennis. They pretend to play with imaginary ball and rackets. They act like the “ball” was hit over the fence, and ask Thomas to retrieve it, He plays along, and the camera then focuses on Thomas’ face as he stares at where the “game” is taking place. However, we hear the rackets hitting the ball, so, for Thomas, and us, the game becomes real. Thomas is either delusional, or he is able, through imagination, to grasp the possibilities of other realities by using his artistic potential. Then the racket and ball sounds stop. Thomas picks up his camera, like a painter gathering up his brush, and disappears as the film ends. He, like the movie in which he appears, is an illusion, too, and we are left to contemplate the depth of what we have witnessed, wanting, like the artist, to grasp ultimate meaning, but are unable to do so.
The next film is Hell or High Water.