Fifty years ago, on 12 May 1967, the Jury of the Cannes Film Festival awarded its top prize to Blow-Up, Michael Antonioni’s first English language film. Shot in London in late summer the previous year, it has intrigued and confounded audiences and critics ever since. In December 1966 Andrew Sarris declared it was “the movie of the year”1, whilst Pauline Kael was slippery and negative, concluding Antonioni was “more interested in getting pretty pictures than in what they mean.”2 More recently, Jonathan Rosenbaum proclaimed “it is so ravishing to look at, and so pleasurable to follow, that you’re likely to excuse the metaphysical pretentions.”3
Not director Mike Leigh, who called the film “a pile of pretentious crap”.4 The debate about the film’s merits and meanings seems endless, commentators arguing that Blow-Up is (amongst other things) a study of 1960s Mod culture, a metaphor for the creative process, a journey of sacrificial gifts leading to enlightenment, a story of impotence, and an autobiographical essay on the nature of perception. There’s as much pleasure to be found in reading the staggering variety of interpretations as there is in watching the film itself.
Antonioni’s starting point for the film was a short story by Argentinian writer Julio Cortazar. Originally titled Las Babas del Diablo (literally The Devil’s Drool, but colloquially an expression suggesting a narrow escape from evil), the story tells of Roberto Michel, an amateur photographer who snaps an image of what seems like “almost nothing”: 5 interrupting what he thinks is a harmless seduction of a young man by an older woman. But when the image is developed, Michel discovers that he has saved the youth from a much more unsavoury deception involving a man in a nearby car. Cortazar’s story focuses on the emotional state of the photographer, the detailed scrutiny of his image a visceral experience for Michel as he simultaneously re-lives the actual event and recreates the horror of “drool and perfume” that he’s convinced would have happened had he not innocently intervened.
In Antonioni’s film the photographer is a professional, named in the screenplay as Thomas (David Hemmings). Modelled on the new breed of 1960s Brit photographers like David Bailey and Brian Duffy who injected sexuality and spontaneity into the world of fashion, Thomas has a superstar aura. He drives an open-top Rolls, orders assistants to look after the dull and mundane, and squeezes a casual sexual romp with two teen fans into his busy day. Yet despite the obvious signs of success there’s no sense that Thomas is either organised or mindful in choosing what to do at any given moment. Distractedness is easy to observe, both in Thomas and other characters in the story. When told to burn the tatty clothes Thomas has been wearing all night in the doss house, his assistant puts them aside within moments of the order, Antonioni making sure we note the act. The model Verushka (playing herself) doesn’t know whether she’s in Paris or London, and Thomas’ neighbour Patricia (Sarah Miles) is distracted even in the act of sex, signalling Thomas who wanders past her bedroom. Even the highly motivated Jane (Vanessa Redgrave) gets sidetracked in Thomas’ studio after she arrives determined to collect the photos he’s taken in the park. Yet unlike Cortazar, Antonioni’s interest is not in the psychological, but rather in what this state of being says about the nature of reality. For Antonioni, distraction is a symptom of the endless possibilities that exist for any moment in time, and there’s no escape from this, no freedom of certainty, however hard you look. Thomas’ only surviving blow-up, like Bill’s paintings, indicate that the harder you look and the smaller the scale of observation, the less certain you can be of anything. The rules of looking at the level of the minute are fundamentally different to the rules of everyday existence.
It is this realisation that shakes Thomas after he returns to the park in darkness and touches the dead man’s face to confirm the conclusions of his photographic investigation. As a photographer, a man paid to look, Thomas has failed to see the death of a man whose murder he has captured on film. He returns home in a contemplative mood, and it is here that Antonioni shows us Thomas revisiting the events of his day if to reassure himself of their reality. He taps the wooden propeller with a foot, wanders through the scene of his shoot with the models, and is reflected in the same sheet of perspex that introduced Veruska. He then revisits Bill’s house and witnesses Patricia having sex, her gesture to him that he shouldn’t leave best interpreted as a sign that he must witness this reality too – an intimate contrast to the simulated sex of his encounter with Verushka. To release Thomas from the awkwardness, from the pain of reality, Antonioni gives us a long pan across a painting of Bill’s that is lying on the floor: a work without form, a canvas of atomised dots. You may think you understand reality, Antonioni is saying, but it’s an illusion of perception.
And if the core story of the photographs of the murder is hard enough to fathom, other complications for meaning-making include the student mimes who open and close the film, and a huge neon sign – an indecipherable logo – that comes to life teasingly, just as Thomas finally gives up his search for truth. There are fragmented conversations between characters who seem not to be listening to each other and, more disconcertingly, both Jane and Thomas disappear: she in front of Thomas’ eyes and he in front of ours. All these narrative ambiguities are heightened by the film’s unusual colour palette (pale greys, lavender blues) and Antonioni’s distinctive approach to coverage: no shot/reverse shots for two person interactions and a camera that circles characters cautiously, positioning them as vulnerable possibilities in a shifting landscape.
Whilst Antonioni worked hard to make the meaning of the film elusive, he did suggest, in this film about looking, where not to look: “a lot of energy was wasted by people trying to decide if there was a murder, or wasn’t a murder, when in fact the film was not about a murder but about a photographer. Those pictures he took were simply one of the things that happened to him, but anything could have happened to him…Blow-Up is a film that lends itself to many interpretations because the issue behind it is precisely the appearance of reality. Therefore, everyone can think what he wants.”6 They clearly still do, and it’s this sense of possibility that lies at the heart of the film’s enigmatic appeal fifty years on.
- Andrew Sarris, “No Antonienniu”, in Focus on Blow Up, Roy Huss (ed) (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1971) p.31 ↩
- Pauline Kael, “Tourist in the City of Youth”, The New Republic, 11 February 1967, p.33. ↩
- Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Blowup”, Chicago Reader, 31 July 2007, http://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/blowup/Film?oid=1064392. ↩
- Mike Leigh, “Blow-Up”, The Guardian, 26 October 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2015/oct/26/mike-leigh-blow-up-antonioni. ↩
- Julio Cortazar, Blow up and Other Stories, (New York: Random House, 1967) p. 122 ↩
- Roger Ebert, “Interview with Michelangelo Antonioni” 19 June 1969, www.rogerebert.com/interviews/interview-with-michelangelo-antonioni ↩