Filmsite Movie Review
Blow-Up (1966)
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Background

Blow-Up (1966) is writer/director Michelangelo Antonioni's view of the world of mod fashion, and an engaging, provocative murder mystery that examines the existential nature of reality interpreted through photography (also painting and pantomime). It was set in mid-60s London, a locale fairly unfamiliar to the director, although well known at the time for its trends including the Beatles, stick-thin fashion model Twiggy, and the mod styles at Carnaby Street. This was Antonioni's first film in English, and it quickly became one of the most important films of its decade, and it was his first international box-office success. It was also a milestone in liberalized attitudes toward film nudity and expressions of sexuality (reportedly the first British film to display full-frontal nudity).

The taut and provocative film about perception and voyeurism was a combination murder mystery, a look at the world of fashion, and one of the greatest films ever made about watching and making movies (composed of still images). Antonioni's story was inspired by the 1959 short story "Las Babas Del Diablo" ("The Devil's Drool") by Julio Cortazar. It followed the quest of a photographer who believed he saw something intriguing that turned out to be very tragic. The film was nominated for two Academy Awards (with no wins): Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay (Michelangelo Antonioni and Tonino Guerra, and Edward Bond), and it won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1967. Whether it was just pretentious film-making or serious cinematic art was left up to the audience.

The Story


The film opens in the era of Swinging London, following a group of happy street mime revelers in any open Jeep careening through the streets. The white-faced and masked group of pranksters carouse and run through the streets engulfing cars and their drivers (collecting and panhandling for charity), while a group of down-and-out men leave Camberwell Reception Centre, a hostel (or flophouse) for the homeless. A desensitized-to-life, nihilistic, high-fashion photographer Thomas (David Hemmings), dressed like a tramp, leaves with the group to walk a block or two to his parked Rolls Royce convertible, carrying his expensive camera in a brown paper bag. He has become bored and uncommitted to his lucrative career of glamour photography, so on the side in a complete about-face, he resorts to photographing (with his Nikon F, the world's first 35mm SLR camera), in verite documentary style, the seamy and sordid side of life in London - including its bums, poverty-stricken individuals, and the aged in flophouses and slums.

He drives through London to a fashion studio, late for a high-fashion, glamorous photo shoot with a lifeless, self-absorbed model (Veruschka). During the erotic, frenzied picture-taking performance, he energetically snaps fashion photos over her skinny, writhing, supine body while pointing his phallic camera at her. Thomas is totally in command of the situation with his camera in action. He straddles her and crawls over her, bringing her to the point of orgasmic release and satisfaction while urging her to move for his still photos ("Give it to me now, come on. That's good...Now, now, yes, yes, yes!"), although it's only a mundane and typical shoot. He also photographs a vapid flock of other unsmiling, stationary "birds" in stylized poses before rectangular backdrop screens. Seeming bored and slightly contemptuous, he cuts short the photo-shoot, instructing the vacant-looking girls to "close your eyes."

The jaded and indifferent Thomas is living a mid-60s life of excess (riches, fame, and women). Innocently and voyeuristically, he takes candid photos in a deserted and serene park [Mayron Park located in the SE London suburb of Charlton] of what he interprets as a lover's tryst-rendezvous between a black kerchief-wearing woman (Vanessa Redgrave) and a middle-aged, gray-haired man, well-dressed in a light-gray suit. It was a moment of 'reality' and truth for the photographer, but he has no idea what lies beneath the surface of the scene he has just documented. As Thomas leaves the serene park, the woman notices him and pursues him. The elusive woman demands the negatives, claiming he has invaded their privacy ("You can't photograph people like that") - but he refuses ("I'm only doing my job...I'm a photographer"). In one of the crucial dialogues in the film, she argues:

Woman: This is a public place. Everyone has the right to be left in peace.
Thomas: It's not my fault if there's no peace.

His suspicions are aroused when she grabs his camera ("What's the rush?"), and when she states: "We haven't met. You've never seen me." She runs off - and it appears that her male companion has disappeared from the park. He takes more photos of her standing next to a tree and bush far in the distance [on close inspection, there is a body lying there, although most viewers won't notice it on first viewing].

At an antique (junk) shop, Thomas buys a huge wooden airplane propeller - entirely useless (inert, stalled and inactive). He shares his photos of homeless men taken the night before with writer/collaborator Ron (Peter Bowles). Three or four of the photos are to be included in a documentary photobook they are producing together. He proposes that the last photo be entirely different in tone. It would be one from the park ("I've got something fab for the end...It's very peaceful, very still") as a contrasting optimistic counterpoint to the more depressing and violent pictures earlier in the book. Ron responds favorably: "Yes, that's best, rings truer." Thomas muses: "I wish I had tons of money, then I'd be free." He sees a stranger searching his parked car, and then encounters a parade of anti-war protestors marching in the street, as he drives home. He is pursued in his car by the stranger and the Girl from the park.

At his studio/home door after he parks, the mysterious Girl rushes up to him, again desperately and persistently asking for the illicit photographs (the undeveloped roll of film). He tells her that he needs to keep the shots from the park. Impatient and jittery, she claims her private life is disastrous, and the exposure of the photos would be damaging, although he counters ("Nothing like a little disaster for sorting things out"). He suggests that she would be an excellent fashion model, for the way she stands and sits. While playing music for her, he instructs the neurotic and frazzled female who is gracelessly dancing: "Listen and keep still." Her attempt to steal his camera and the film fails when he intercepts her from running off. She disrobes, becoming topless to sexually flirt and bargain with him for the film (she coyly crosses her arms over her naked breasts), but he cooly declines: "Get dressed." To get her to leave, Thomas provides her with a false, different roll of undeveloped film, but then she remains and enjoys his company (it is unclear whether they have sex together). Before leaving, she provides him with a contact phone number (but it later turns out to be phony).

He then processes the roll of film taken during his park visit. He enlarges ('blows-up') some of the pictures to poster size, and pins the magnified photos around his studio's living room during a process of extreme analysis. A few of the pictures are enlarged even further - and he imagines in the process of self-discovery that he sees a man and a hand holding a gun in the shadows of some bushes behind a fence. The gun man appears to have caught the eye of the panicky woman (is she complicit or unknowing?). The photographs appear to be in a suspenseful sequence - giving them life and activity as if they are individual frames in a motion picture. It's possible that his picture-taking has foiled a potential murder attempt, and the pictures are now revealing more than he originally saw in the park, interpreted at first as just a scene of sexual intrigue. He phones Ron with his findings, speculating: "Somebody was trying to kill somebody else. I saved his life."

Thomas' quest for the truth in the photos is side-tracked and interrupted by a sexy romp with two wanna-be, naive teenage groupies/models (blonde Jane Birkin and brunette Gillian Hills). It is their second visit to his studio, to have their pictures taken with some of his fashionable model outfits. While trying on clothes, the skinny blonde is stripped of her clothes by Thomas, and then she wrestles her giggly dark-haired friend to also strip her, claiming: "She's got a better figure than me." Everything evolves into a very sexual, menage a trois orgy with all of them rolling around on a large extended roll of purplish-blue backdrop paper, with tactful and quick glimpses of female pubic hair from both girls.

While the teens are still there (although dressed but with no time for photographs, he tells them, until the next day), tension heightens when he is drawn back to the enlargements. He imagines a more riveting possibility in the photos - that he may have accidentally recorded and obtained visual, criminal evidence of a murder. He uses a magnifying glass to look at more photo detail, revealing what could be a dead body lying prone on the ground in the far distance next to a tree and some bushes. He enlarges the photo and studies the grainy blow-up before deciding on his next step.

He returns to the park that night, passing by a white neon sign (FOA), a symbolic foreshadowing in the shape of a gun. He finds the man's corpse next to some bushes at the far-end of the park - real proof of a murder that he has accidentally recorded as a witness. Unfortunately, he doesn't have his camera (Thomas is at his weakest without it) to photograph the body of the gray-haired man who was embracing the Girl. When he returns home, he voyeuristically watches his unhappily-married friend Patricia (Sarah Miles) underneath her husband Bill (John Castle) as he makes love to her. She wordlessly entreats Thomas in their flat to stay in view nearby so she can achieve orgasm - his presence arouses her passion. In his studio, all the blown-up pictures and negatives are discovered to be stolen - except for the extremely grainy blown-up picture of the body on the ground. It is so fuzzy, abstract and indistinct that it proves nothing. When Patricia stops by, he tells her that he saw someone shot in the park that morning. When she asks about how it happened, he answers: "I don't know. I didn't see." She comments, importantly, that the only picture he has of the body "looks like one of Bill's paintings."

While he is driving to meet up with Ron, he spots the Girl and chases after her, finding himself in an indoors Yardbirds concert, where the legendary group smashes their guitars and amplifiers, stirring the passive crowd into a frenzy. He also is caught up in the destructive mob, and is able to snatch a broken neck of a guitar (that he soon discards). Delayed again in his quest for truth, Thomas locates Ron at a fashionable cocktail party in an apartment, where some of the young people are rolling joints and smoking dope in a backroom. His friend is stoned and disoriented, and partying with Veruschka (who had told him at the photoshoot that she would be in Paris that evening).

Thomas excitedly tells Ron that he wants to record more shots of the dead body:

Someone's been killed...Those pictures I took in the park...I want you to see the corpse. We've got to get a shot of it.

But a disoriented Ron is uninterested and disbelieving: "I'm not a photographer," and then asks: "What did you see in that park?" Thomas capitulates and answers that he also doesn't comprehend or cannot explain what he saw: "Nothing." Thomas remains at the party until the next morning, where he awakens at sunrise - and decides to revisit the park. There, he sees that the corpse has disappeared - it is confirmed that he did see "nothing". His assumptions about a murder are now completely lacking proof and discredited. The evidence gets at once more difficult to ignore and more impossible to define. Without photographic evidence produced by his camera-tool - his sole means of communicating and connecting with the world, he is left with nothing, and his brief excitement and absorption with the perplexing 'murder mystery' ends abruptly. He surrenders his conviction that there was a murder.

In the film's finale, he wanders further through the expansive park. He is distracted when he encounters the same group of pantomiming student mimes in white-face, playing an invisible game of tennis with non-existent rackets and balls (some of the mimes act as a participatory audience). The mimes both open and close the film, as a framing device. His attention is directed toward the lengthy charade, and he also suspends his belief in concrete reality to join in and share their mock tennis match. He becomes directly involved when he tosses an invisible 'lost' tennis ball back to the two players when it is imagined that the ball is hit out of the court. On the soundtrack, one can now hear the illusion in Thomas' accepting mind - the sound of an actual tennis game. Something that he hasn't photographed and preserved on film (with the camera he is carrying) actually exists - signifying his transformative change over time. It is another indelible image emphasizing the slim line between objective reality and illusion - the tennis ball is as 'real' as the 'illusory' photographs he took.

The film ends with an aerial view of Thomas standing at a distance in the middle of a grassy field in the park near the tennis court, with his camera in his hand. As the camera rises above him for the shot (framed like one of Thomas' own blow-ups), he fades from view just before the words THE END zoom forward. He appears as imaginary, isolated, or indistinct as the tennis ball, or as the grainy dots on his enlarged photos, or the color specs on a painter's canvas.