Movie Review – Blow-Up

Blow-Up (1966)
Written by Michelangelo Antonioni and Tonino Guerra
Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni

For some reason, I keep drawing parallels between Michelangelo Antonioni and Alfred Hitchcock, despite their radically different filmmaking styles. Even their narratives are different in structure. The connection I’m seeing is that, thematically, they are touching the same ideas, just in radically different manners. Hitchcock is devoted to the suspense thriller narrative and uses it to spotlight modernity-related anxieties. Rear Window, Vertigo, Psycho, etc., are all about people confronting horrors within the context of the mid-20th century. Where Hitchcock provides us with concrete antagonists to focus our anxieties on, Antonioni keeps things ambiguous, the horror is existential, and thus his conclusions feel bleaker.

Thomas (David Hemmings) is a photographer in the Swinging Sixties of London circa 1966. Immediately we learn he’s a bit of a slacker, being late to one appointment with a model creating a domino effect for the rest of that day’s schedule. He’s also incredibly unprofessional, getting bored in the middle of a shoot and wandering off, leaving the models & crew there wondering what happened.

After blowing off some teenage fans, Thomas wanders around a city park and catches two lovers in an embrace. The woman, Jane (Vanessa Redgrave), follows him and demands he hand over the film; he’s violated her privacy. Thomas arrogantly refuses and snaps her picture as she runs away, upset. Later, the photographer meets with his manager and notices he’s being followed by a strange man. Finally, Jane shows up at his studio, and they flirt, she’s taken a more diplomatic approach, and he hands over a roll of film to keep her happy. It’s not the film with her pictures; he knows that.

Now Thomas is curious why Jane was so adamant about destroying these pictures. He develops the film and makes enlarged prints. He examines the series of photos and notices they tell a disturbing story he didn’t see when he took them. Jane looks into the distance in one picture, a worried look on her face, and her eyeline points to a third figure lurking in the trees. Thomas thinks his impromptu photo session must have scared this threatening man off.

Something is itching at Thomas’s mind, that he’s missed something. Sure enough, he looks at the photos he took after getting into an argument with a random woman in the park. There’s now a prone figure under a bush he missed. Returning to the park, Thomas discovers the body is still there; he’s the first to discover it. He’s scared off by the sound of a snapping twig and returns to his studio, only to find it has been ransacked. Everything is gone except a single grainy blow-up of one photo.

Suddenly the world begins to feel bleaker and less hopeful than before. Thomas wanders to parties and sees people he knows, but they are different now, or he is different in some way. Eventually, he finds himself back at the park, but the body is gone this time. Was it ever really there before? In the movie’s final moments, Thomas encounters a troupe of mimes who coerce him into joining their game. He tosses an imaginary ball, but then he hears it hit the ground.

Blow-Up was Antonioni attempting to shake things up, and he certainly did. Gone is the familiar face of Monica Vitti, though she would remain in a relationship with the director until 1970. This was the first of three movies Antonioni made under contract with MGM, who wanted to take advantage of the critical acclaim swirling around him. Blow-Up would win the Palme D’or at the 1967 Cannes Film Festival and garner immediate praise, ironically not what was experienced when L’avventura premiered there seven years earlier. Antonioni is clearly influenced by Western youth counterculture, which makes the picture different from his other work. He’s also playing with a far more concrete plot while still layering in some abstraction so that it only plays somewhat straightforwardly.

In keeping with the earlier Hitchcock comparisons, Blow-Up is a film concerned with voyeurism. It’s still a significant theme in cinema to this day, seen recently in Jordan Peele’s Nope which uses horror/science fiction tropes to explore the idea of the Gaze. The Gaze is a term used in psychology and cultural studies to refer to how an individual looks at or observes something or someone. In the context of voyeurism, the Gaze relates to looking at someone or something in a voyeuristic manner, typically intending to gain sexual gratification. This may involve looking at someone without their knowledge or consent or observing someone engaging in private or intimate activities. Voyeuristic behavior is generally considered a form of sexual deviance and can be illegal in some cases.

Thomas’s entire career is centered around the Gaze, he’s a photographer, and so he sells his own Gaze to others through his photography. At multiple points in the film, Antonioni switches to a first-person point of view using a camera on a tripod and slowly pivoting it from side to side, representing Thomas as he takes in the landscape of the park, hunting for something to shoot. Voyeurism is about constructing a narrative on top of images lacking context. A peeping tom watches a woman undress and builds a sexual fantasy that the subject of his gaze is utterly unaware of. The peeping tom is constructing an artificial reality that suits his immediate desires while the woman is just getting ready for bed. Which is the “true” meaning of this tableau? It all depends on who you are asking.

This would not be an Antonioni film if he gave us a conventional mystery, and so we get the skeleton of a mystery without any tangible resolution, just a protagonist left more adrift than he was when we started. By the film’s end, every shred of evidence Thomas had is gone except for a single photograph that feels so blown up that it’s abstracted. The director ponders the idea that the detailed examination of something causes it to be fragmented and, therefore, unable to be recognized any longer. It’s reminiscent of Giuliana and Corrado’s sex scene in Red Desert, where they become atomized body parts, and all sense of love or intimacy evaporates.

Despite the familiar pieces, Blow-Up feels like a different director’s work. Antonioni had visited Vitti on the set of a film she was shooting in London and was taken by the counterculture scene there. He was over fifty years of age at the time, so he was not the sort of person that was a part of that reimagining of life. But his antifascist beliefs likely caused him to see this radical experimentation and uprooting of institutions as good.

Despite his previous films, I was left deeply unsatisfied by Blow-Up. The shift to a male protagonist didn’t sit well with me because I enjoy Vitti’s performances in the older films. I liked some of the cinematography here but didn’t feel it was the director’s best work. Blow-Up is ultimately a piece of experimentation, and experiments in film are a mixed bag. More often than not, they fail to achieve the filmmaker’s ambitions, which is why they are a risk. Ultimately I did not feel the emotional connection I did with pictures like L’eclisse and Red Desert, so this one would go low on my list of Antonioni’s movies. Not terrible but not terribly compelling from my point of view.

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