You Can't Photograph People Like That!
Few directors are as divisive as Michelangelo Antonioni, best known as
creator of the 1961 L'AVVENTURA and the 1966 BLOW UP, both of which
present largely unresolved mysteries in order to make thematic
statements. In the case of BLOW UP, which is easily Antonioni's best
English-language film, the unresolved story is one of a possible murder
captured by accident on film; the themes involved are those of reality,
illusion, and the distractions that prevent us from seeing the
difference between the two.
Thomas (David Hemmings) is an obnoxious, self-centered London
photographer who alternates between fashion and art photography. In
search of a tranquil subject to counterpoint an otherwise dark
collection of photographs, he takes several photographs of a couple in
an otherwise empty park---and is unconcerned when the woman (Vanessa
Redgrave) pursues him to his to studio to demand the negatives. Thomas
agrees to give them to her, but secretly switches rolls of film; later,
when he develops the photographs, he is startled to find he may have
photographed a murder.
The film is perhaps most memorable for its disturbing sense of irony.
Near the beginning of the film Thomas is plagued by two would-be
models; he escapes them by visiting an antique shop and then wanders
into the nearby park. As the film progresses, he finds his meeting with
the unwillingly-photographed woman interrupted by the delivery of a
purchase he made at that antique shop; still later, and now aroused by
the mysterious woman, he is once more visited by the would-be models
and has sex with them---an incident that delays his inspection of the
photographs and effectively derails him from receiving assistance from
various friends who are now themselves distracted by sex and drugs.
Each detail coils back upon itself in a series of frustrating
interruptions, driving Thomas in directions that repeatedly delay any
action he might take that could answer his questions, much less solve
The greatest irony is that we are watching pictures of a photographer
taking pictures, and indeed much of the film involves looking at
pictures of pictures of pictures without any clear indication of
whether or not anything we see is actually real---which is, of course,
exactly the nature of the illusion a movie creates. That said, if you
come to film expecting a murder mystery with a neatly explained
solution, you are in for a rude shock: BLOW UP is not "about" plot; it
is about how difficult it is to know anything factual from a medium
that is intrinsically illusionary in the first place. Not only is the
nature of film as a medium the movie's greatest irony, it is also
probably it's ultimate statement.
BLOW UP really is a film that tends to jack people's jaws all over the
place, partly because it defeats their expectations in terms of
character and plot, but more specifically because it is so open-ended
that you can pretty much impose any meaning upon it that you like. Was
there a man with a gun---or was it just a trick of the light? Was there
a murder---or was it something else? And if so, what? And what does it
all mean at the end? But there are no fixed "meanings" in the film at
all, and if you want a strong storyline with clear-cut ideas, well,
you're out of luck here. So no, BLOW UP isn't a film for every one. It
will most greatly appeal to people with a fondness for European cinema
and art movies.
The DVD presently available is at best acceptable; it would be really
nice to see this film given the royal treatment by a company such as
Criterion. In any case, recommended to as a masterpiece of the "art
GFT, Amazon Reviewer.
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An iconic film about sight and perception.
It seems that Blow-Up has been re-evaluated somewhat in recent years,
no longer being hailed as the iconic classic it once was, and instead
being criticised for the meandering plot and the somewhat dated
depiction of swinging 60's London. This is a real shame, but at the end
of the day, it's a film that I still enjoy so really, I don't care!!
For me, Blow-Up is a film that holds up to repeated viewing, with each
subsequent re-viewing revealing more and more (possible)
interpretations of the plot. It's a film that requires the viewer's
participation and imagination to elaborate on the ideas that Antonioni
suggests through movements, composition, actions and sound, and mostly
works for me because of an obsession I have with British 60's
culture... so the chance to revel in the colours and locations is
fantastic, with the film standing as something of a cultural time
capsule as well as a slight (though no less enjoyable) murder mystery.
The basic plot revolves around a feckless and self-infatuated
photographer at the heart of the happening 60's scene, with Antonioni
sketching a world of no-ties sex-orgies, pot parties, protesting
students, shallow scenesters, chic fashionistas, gaudy colours, bizarre
camera angles, extended jazz-numbers, waif-like models and the gradual
disintegration of the hippie era and the sense of innocence lost.
Amongst all of this, he and co-writer Tonino Guerra manage to comment
on the urbanisation of most major metropolitan cities moving towards
the 1970's (with the newly built concrete housing blocks that our
protagonist drives past a number of times during the film now being an
all too familiar presence, particularly in areas around London,
Manchester and Birmingham). It also taps into the existentialist idea
of a character lost in his own abyss, finding little comfort in the
scene he has immersed himself in, whilst simultaneously struggling to
find something more tangible and worthwhile within the mire of 60's
More than that however, the film is a great treatise on the notion of
perception... for example, is it really that coincidental that our lead
character is a photographer, someone who's entire profession revolves
around documenting an abstracted view of reality? Throughout the film,
Antonioni is playing with the notion of perception and the way we see
things, from the opening scene - in which the photographer emerges
black-faced from a factory and dressed in grungy overalls to match his
work-mates, before he rounds the corner and jumps into his pristine
Rolls Royce - right the way to the end, where a group of students act
out a tennis match using mime, in which our hero finally realises the
difference between what is seen and what is felt.
The point of the film is not "who was murdered?" or "who murdered
who?", but rather, did the murder actually take place at all? Can we
trust our central character? And, more importantly, can we trust what
we are being shown by the director? The major set-piece here is a
tranquil moment in which the photographer (the brilliant David
Hemmings) innocently snaps a couple enjoying an intimate moment in a
secluded park for the closing chapter of his book. When he is spotted
by the couple the woman approaches and demands to have the negatives
returned to her. Our hero refuses and, in moment of confusion, manages
to slink away with the snaps still on his camera. Later, the same woman
appears at the photographer's studio and attempts to seduce him in an
attempt reclaim the negative. Again, playing off the notion of
perception, we assume that the woman's urgent desire to reclaim the
photographs stems from a possibly illicit affair, however, once
Hemmings has developed the negative and printed the shots he sees a
curious shape in one of the bushes that almost resembles a face.
What follows is another tense, low-key set-piece in which Hemmings has
large scale blow-ups made of each picture and studies them at length.
Antonioni forces the audience to study the pictures along with him and,
in a moment of unrivalled cinematic subjectivity, the outline of the
face and the possible appearance of a gun begins to become clear. In
the last picture, the photographer outlines what could be the shape of
a collapsed body, but the images are purposely obscured by the
pixilation of the blow-up and the harsh contrast of the picture's black
and white. When he should be bringing the photographs to the attention
of the police, the photographer instead gets roped into a three way
sex-game (an important and historical cinematic moment featuring a
young Jane Birkin and Gillian Hills, with the first sight of pubic hair
ever glimpsed in a mainstream movie) and later, when he should be
tailing the woman from the park, he ends up watching a shambolic
performance from the Yardbirds (another iconic moment in the film...
though it would have made more sense with Antonioni's original choice,
The appearance and later the disappearance of a body in the park
suggests a possible conspiracy, or it perhaps suggests deeper shades to
our hero's personality. Was there really a murder, or was the whole
film just part of the central characters need for something more
tangible than the routine pantomime of 60's overindulgence? The ending
seems to suggest some moment of transcendence for the character, with
that aforementioned tennis scene between the mimes and that deep
silence that makes the moment into something much more memorable and
important than it might have initially seemed. Blow-Up is a slow-paced
and meandering film that favours atmosphere over narrative momentum,
and, as a result, will no doubt alienate a number of potential viewers.
That said, if you're the kind of person who enjoyed the mystery
elements of films like Coppola's The Conversation, Argento's Deep Red
and De Palma's Blow-Out (all of which draw heavily on the influence of
this) and can look past the dated depiction of 60's London, then
Blow-Up offers a lot be enjoyed..