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Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966) contains obvious differences from its source material, Julio Cortázar’s short story Las Babas del Diablo (1959), yet the ambiguous treatment of reality is an important similarity in both works. Blow-Up has inspired the critical focus of many scholars since its release over five decades ago, but few have commented on the relationship of the film to its source material. Where they have made mention of the film as an adaptation, critical analyses have, for the most part, done little more than establish a causal relationship between the two. As film and theatre critic Stanley Kauffmann observes, “Antonioni retains little other than the device of subsequently discovering in a photograph what was really happening at that moment.”1 Even more dismissively, journalist and author Charles Thomas Samuel wrote, “Antonioni’s transformations are nearly total.”2 Contrary to the overwhelming assumption that Antonioni’s interest in Las Babas amounts to little more than a shared plot device, however, is Blow-Up’s similarly ambiguous representation of reality in both content and form. Through this similarity, Antonioni explores an essential, shared theme of reality’s  relationship with technology and, in effect, captures the essence of the Cortázar short story.

In both Blow-Up and Las Babas, the protagonists’ use of a camera functions to skew their realities. In understanding this similarity, the “crime scenes” and their relation to the blow-up sequences, in which the crimes are seemingly discovered, are key. In the initial photography in Las Babas, Michel thinks he captures an older woman attempting to seduce a young boy. He already anticipates that when he blows up his photographs, he will uncover truths that were unavailable to him in the real time and space in which he took them. Michel values the reality he finds through his photos over the one he experiences through his senses: 

I think that I know how to look… that every looking oozes with mendacity, because it’s that which expels us furthest outside ourselves, without the least guarantee, whereas to smell, or…. perhaps it suffices to choose between the looking and the reality looked at…3  

After Michel blows up his photograph and pins it to his wall, he stares at it for hours on end, “[R]emembering, that gloomy operation of comparing the memory with the gone reality; a frozen memory, like any photo, where nothing is missing, not even, and especially, nothingness, the true solidifier of the scene.”4 Eventually, he becomes aware of occupying the exact same position of the camera at the time of the shot. The photographs seemingly become his present reality and the actions of the people in it are repeated with the inclusion of a third, previously unseen party. Michel gathers that the woman was setting up the young boy for a meeting with the third party, a paedophilic old man. In this revelatory moment, Michel fuses with his camera, saying, “I was nothing but the lens of my camera.”5       

Antonioni’s protagonist, Thomas, also experiences reality through his camera. In the initial photography in Blow-Up, Thomas captures a couple having, or so it seems, a secret, romantic rendezvous in a park. Thomas plans to use these photographs as an idyllic conclusion to his otherwise sombre photography book. Like Michel, when he blows up the photos and pins them to his wall, he stares at them continually, comparing his actual memory with the captured images. After a while, he comes to the same conclusion as Michel when he discovers an entirely new reality previously unseen. Although not presented as literally as the reality Michel re-experiences in the short story, the film reconstructs the narrative of the photos through Thomas’ perceptions to much the same effect. The viewer follows Thomas as he watches the couple in the park, following the woman’s gaze and the contorted posture of her body, which curls around her partner to look towards the bushes. In this moment, Thomas sees a second man hiding with a pistol.

Blow-Up

Blow-Up 

Blow-Up

The truth of what Thomas and Michel uncover through their photography remains ambiguous. Both characters display a consistent unreliability that gives reason to question their thoughts and behaviours. Cortázar even warns the reader of Michel’s unreliability: “Michel is guilty of making literature, of indulging in fabricated unrealities.”6 Antonioni’s Thomas also proves guilty of fabricating the truth. After he tells Jane, the woman from the park, that his wife wants to speak with her, he goes on to say: “She isn’t my wife really. We just have some kids… No… No kids. Sometimes, though, it… it feels as if we had kids. She isn’t beautiful, she’s… easy to live with… No she isn’t. That’s why I don’t live with her.” Thomas’ name, even, could be derived from the biblical “doubting Thomas,” an apostle who refused to believe that Christ had arisen from the grave after his death unless he could see and touch the wounds himself.7 Viewers follow Thomas as the progressive doubt in his photographic findings parallel his increasingly erratic actions.      

The presence or absence of Thomas’ camera determines his perception of reality and his confidence in it. Throughout much of the film, Thomas comes off as pretentious with his camera in hand. Using it as a form of control, the models are subjected to his whim. He even simulates a sexual act with a model at the beginning of the film – played by 1960s model Veruschka – through his camera, literally straddling her during their photoshoot. Later in the film, he enjoys an implied ménage à trois with two aspiring models desperate for a shoot with him. Similarly, after Thomas blows up his photographs, he is convinced that the attempted murder he uncovers is real. He immediately calls his agent Ron (Peter Bowles) and confidently says, “Ron, something fantastic happened. Those photographs in the park- fantastic. Somebody was trying to kill somebody else. I saved his life.”  

Blow-Up

Conversely, in the absence of his camera, Thomas begins to lose his confidence in reality. To confirm the attempted murder, he goes back to the park. Without his camera, he discovers that he did not save anybody’s life. He finds the body and even physically touches it. When he returns to his studio, he finds that all of his negatives and prints have been stolen, save for one enlargement that shows the body. This photograph looks so grainy that it hardly constitutes any sort of valid evidence. Thomas’ neighbour, Patricia (Sarah Miles), even compares it to the intentionally abstract and ambiguous paintings done by her husband Bill (John Castle). Earlier in the film, Bill describes his painting process: “They don’t mean anything when I do them – just a mess. Afterwards, I find something to hang onto – like that ..like… like that leg… And then it sorts itself out. It adds up. It’s like finding a clue in a detective story.” This provides an important comment on the blow-up sequence, with Bill’s thoughts mirroring Thomas’ interpretations of his photographs. The difference lies in Bill realizing, even embracing, the arbitrary nature to his paintings, whereas Thomas places a concrete hope of realism into his discovery. 

Like Michel in Las Babas, Thomas does not trust his senses. Despite actually seeing and touching the body, Thomas’ confidence in his reality suffers a blow due to the lack of concrete photographic proof. In one scene, for example, he thinks he spots Jane standing in the street. Standing under a neon sign that reads “Permutit,” Jane seems to disappear before his eyes. Desperate to question her about what he discovered in the blow-ups, Thomas runs to look for her but is unsuccessful. As he runs up and down the street, the “Permutit” sign appears in the frame several times. Thomas is struggling to come to grips with the subjectivity of reality or, in other words, reality as a permutation. Michel comments on this in the short story as well: “Michel knew that the photographer always functions as a permutation of his personal way of seeing in the world into which the camera insidiously imposes… but this did not shake his confidence.”8 Michel believes that the camera imposes an objective truth onto reality’s subjectivity.  

In the film, after Thomas fails to find Jane, he randomly runs into the “Ricky Tick” nightclub where English rock band The Yardbirds are playing to a mindless, robotic crowd. When Jeff Beck destroys his guitar and tosses its snapped neck, Thomas finds himself in the middle of the suddenly raucous crowd vying for the mangled instrument. Like Thomas, the crowd seems to be in search of something tangible to fulfil their empty realities. When he comes out of the club with the broken guitar neck, Thomas realises it has failed to enlighten and discards it in the street. In the following scene, when he finds Ron through the haze of a drug-infused swinging London party, he attempts to bring him to the park as another witness. Although Thomas conveys the need to get a photo of the body, he struggles to communicate what he actually saw in person, “I want you to see the corpse. We’ve got to get a shot of it.” Ron then asks, “What did you see in that park?” to which Thomas replies, “Nothing.” 

Thomas also runs into Veruschka at the party, who previously told him she was unable to do any subsequent work after their initial photoshoot because she was traveling to Paris. In deadpan delivery, she tells Thomas that she is in Paris. Thomas is quite sure they are in London. This conversation further questions Thomas’ subjectivity of reality. The next day, Thomas returns to the park again with his camera to obtain the proof he so desperately desires. This time, he not only does not find the body, but there is no evidence to suggest it had ever existed in the first place. At this point, Thomas’ confidence in reality has been shaken to the point where even the presence of his camera cannot help.

The final scene in Blow-Up sees Thomas watching a group of mimes as they act out an imaginary tennis match: running, hitting, and expressing emotions according to the bounce of an imaginary ball. The mimes are in contrast with the loud, rebellious crowd at The Yardbirds’ concert. Thomas watches them from outside the fence of the tennis court with his camera by his side, shaking his head and smiling at their inexplicable behaviour. When the ball is hit outside the fenced-in court, the mimes motion for Thomas to go fetch it. Although hesitant at first, he eventually gives in and walks over to the grassy area where the ball has supposedly landed. Thomas sits his camera down on the grass, picks the ball up, and throws it back to the court. In this moment, Thomas succumbs to a reality that he has resisted thus far, finally giving in to the inherent ambiguity and subjectivity of reality, something the mimes have accepted all along. 

Although Michel seems to fully believe in the reality he experiences through his blow-up, the final paragraph of the short story suggests that he too may have an awareness that the reality found in a photograph may not always be completely true: 

What remains to be said is always a cloud, two clouds, or long hours of a sky perfectly clear, a very clear, clean rectangle tacked on with pins on the wall of my room. That was what I saw when I opened my eyes and dried them with my fingers: the clear sky, and then a cloud that drifted in from the left, passed gracefully and slowly across and disappeared on the right. And then another, and for a change sometimes, everything gets gray, all one enormous cloud, and suddenly the splotches of rain cracking down, for a long spell you can see it raining over the picture, like a spell of weeping reversed, and little by little, the frame becomes clear, perhaps the sun comes out, and again the clouds begin to come, two at a time, three at a time.9

While the reality of the photograph sometimes seems completely clear to Michel, which is undoubtedly the case when he re-experiences its contents earlier in the story, he recognizes that at other times he may get an entirely different, cloudier truth from it. Like Thomas when he chases after and picks up the tennis ball, Michel’s final thoughts here indicate an awareness of reality’s subjectivity as well as a newfound untrustworthiness in the product of his technology. 

In addition to the confusing nature of reality found in the content of Blow-Up and Las Babas, both Antonioni and Cortázar add further ambiguity through experimentation with form and self-reflexivity. In the short story, the narration constantly switches from first person to second and third person, and from passive to active voices. The narrator introduces this experimental style in the very first paragraph of the story: 

It’ll never be known how this has to be told, in the first person or in the second, using the third person plural or continually inventing modes that will serve for nothing. If one might say: I will see the moon rose, or; we hurt at the back of my eyes, and especially: you the blond woman was the clouds that race before my your his our yours their faces. What the hell.10 

This form of prose that appears throughout the story presents an obvious problem in discerning a reliable and consistent reality. The narrator also self-consciously acknowledges his own unreliability early on, “No one knows who is telling this story, whether it is I or what has happened, or what I’m seeing.”11 

Blow-Up is also a film that experiments with style to confuse reality. In the opening title sequence, the credits are displayed over a green background. Through translucent letters, something that’s observed by academic and author Terry J. Peavler as “tiny, irregular windows,” the viewer sees pieces of a woman dancing for a photoshoot on the other side.12 This immediately introduces the idea of other forms of reality at play beyond those at the surface level, specifically in relation to photography. The background first seen in this opening also exactly mirrors the primary colour palette of the lush, green park, the setting in which Thomas’ reality becomes most ambiguous. At the end of the film as the camera lingers on the final shot of Thomas in the middle of the green grass, and as he disappears completely “The End” appears in his place in sharp, black letters. The black end titles contrast with the blue, translucent ones from the opening. Again, this suggests the shift in Thomas’ perceptions of reality from the beginning to the end of the film.

Similar to the ways in which Thomas’ camera affects his perception of reality within the story, Antonioni’s camera plays an active role in depicting an ambiguous reality. The scenes that stylistically confuse reality the most are the same ones in which Thomas’ own doubts about his reality become the most heightened. In the park scenes, Antonioni uses camerawork to decentre and disperse the gaze of the viewer. When Thomas revisits the park at the end of the film with his camera, he kneels down and discovers that the body he found earlier is no longer there. As the camera looks down on him from a bird’s-eye-view angle, Thomas looks up and the shot cuts to what seems to be his point-of-view, a shot of tree branches blowing in the wind. The viewers’ assumptions are subverted when the camera tilts down to Thomas standing in the frame, revealing an apparently subjective shot to be objective. As Thomas’ own assumptions are thrown into doubt, so are the viewers’. 

Blow-Up

Blow-Up

Blow-Up

Throughout the mimed tennis match stylistic elements confuse reality. Although the camera starts out passively looking on at the match, eventually, before Thomas ever does, it buys into it, whipping and panning with the movements of the ball. When the imaginary ball is hit outside the fence, the camera follows, slowly tracking with it before settling on the spot where it would be centre framed. After Thomas succumbs to the game, the sound of the ball and the rackets are heard. These sounds represent Thomas’ perceptions as his perspective of reality shifts. 

Beyond the intentionally noticeable artifice found in the stylistic techniques of Blow-Up and Las Babas, the two works are self-reflexive on a fundamental level. Academic John Freccero, writing for American journal Theater in 1970, suggests “Blow-Up is in fact a series of photographs about a series of photographs and so constitutes what might be called a metalinguistic metaphor, a highly self-conscious and self-reflexive meditation on its own process.”13 Additionally, whenever Antonioni captures shots of Thomas taking pictures, he gives us what Freccero calls a “photograph of a photographer taking a photograph.”14 In many ways, the film can be viewed as a discourse on a discourse. 

In the final shot in which Thomas disappears, Antonioni, more than ever, draws attention to the artifice of the film. In doing so, he overtly acknowledges the inability to achieve traditional “realism” in a self-referential way. When Thomas disappears, the viewer faces the fictitious nature of the film in much the same way that Thomas himself does when finally acknowledging the artificial reality he has believed up until that point. The idea of a self-referential discourse on a discourse can be applied to Las Babas as well. The defining characteristics of the narrator, Roberto Michel, as a French-Chilean amateur photographer and a professional translator, are all based on his creator. Cortázar, beyond being a writer, was also a professional translator, an amateur photographer, and a Spanish-American living in Paris. 

The ambiguous representations of reality conveyed through content and style in Blow-Up and Las Babas ultimately implicates their overall themes and meaning. Central to the meaning of both is the role of technology and artistic form in the construction of realities. Terry J. Peavler, in his article “Blow-Up: A Reconsideration of Antonioni’s Infidelity to Cortázar,” says of the two works, “the artist, instead of struggling with the raw subject matter of his art, is forced to grapple with the medium itself and with the relationship between reality and the results of his artistic effort.”15 Rather than trusting the reality they experience through their senses, Michel and Thomas discover, or invent, reality through their photography. Although Michel and Thomas initially trust the reality they find through their cameras, Antonioni and Cortázar ironically and self-consciously acknowledge through technical form an inability to trust superficial presentation. They refute their protagonists’ philosophies by presenting reality with all its ambiguities intact. 

Antonioni himself commentated on the inherent and impenetrable ambiguity of the displayed image, saying, “We know that under the revealed image there is another one which is more faithful to reality, and under this one there is another, and again another under this last one, down to the true image of that absolute, mysterious reality that nobody will ever see.”16 A diversion in Antonioni’s fundamental beliefs regarding cinema’s representation of reality can be perceived through the shift from his earlier, neorealist style films like Il Grido (1957)  to modernist/postmodernist works like L’Avventura (1960)  and, especially, Blow-Up. In an essay circa 1964, he directly remarks on this change;

During the post war period there was a great need for truth, and it seemed possible to photograph it from street corners. Today, neorealism is obsolete, in the sense that we aspire more and more to create our own reality. This criterion is even applied to a film of a documentary character and to newsreels, most of which are produced according to a preconceived idea. Not cinema in the service of reality, but reality in the service of cinema. There is the same tendency in feature films. I have the impression that the essential thing is to give a film an almost allegorical tone.17

Thomas’ dramatic shift – from his confident documentation of poverty in the film’s opening to reluctantly picking up his camera, then disappearing, in the film’s final frame – mirrors Antonioni’s own shift in beliefs. After his final encounter with the mimes, Thomas seems more equipped than ever to handle reality through his photography. In fact, he seems ready to take Antonioni’s own advice: “If someone creative wants to help himself, then he should look outside, go down into the street and mingle with other people. It’s the only way to grasp the essence of truth, to make films that have that flavour of truth, which cinema needs today more than in the past.”18 

Cortázar has expressed a similar belief that the captured image differs from reality: “Photography of the quality of a Cartier-Bresson or a Brassaï define their art as an apparent paradox: that of excising a fragment of reality, fixing it with determined limits, but in such a way that the excision functions as an explosive force that opens wide a far more ample reality.”19 Here, Cortázar is saying that photographs that achieve true realism are those that embrace the photographer and the camera’s influence on the end result. By the end of both Blow-Up and Las Babas, Thomas and Michel have undergone experiences that seem to result in, at the least, a recognition of the same philosophies expressed by their creators.

The ambiguous nature of reality proves to be both Antonioni and Cortázar’s primary concern in Blow-Up and Las Babas. Although many critics have dismissed Blow-Up as a legitimate adaptation to the short story, Cortázar himself expressed satisfaction: 

I left Antonioni absolutely free to depart from my story and follow his own ghosts: in his search for them he met with some of mine, because my stories are more contagious than they may seem to be… A long time [after his meeting with the director] I went on to the first performance of the film in Europe: on a wet afternoon in Amsterdam I bought my ticket like any of the Dutch who had gathered to see it, and there came a moment, during the rustle of foliage as the camera raised toward the sky above the park and focused on the trembling leaves, when I had the feeling that Antonioni was winking at me, and that we were meeting above or below our differences.20

In the moment Cortázar refers to, Antonioni subverts the viewer’s assumptions, reflecting the growing doubt in his protagonist. Although Cortázar only acknowledges this one instance, Antonioni utilizes similarly self-reflexive, stylistic techniques throughout his film. Subversive techniques like these, which Cortázar incorporates throughout his story as well, presents an enigmatic reality closer to the one that cannot ever truly be superficially reproduced. This is in contrast with the realities that the two protagonists initially trust through their cameras, presenting a tension that is an essential theme in both works. In the end, by presenting a reality with all its ambiguities intact through both content and style, Antonioni’s Blow-Up captures the essence of Cortázar’s Las Babas del Diablo in a way that suggests much more than just a wink.

Endnotes

  1. Stanley Kauffman, “A Year with Blow-Up Some Notes.”, Salmungundi, vol. 2, no. 3 (7), (1968): p. 69.
  2. Charles Thomas Samuels, “Sorting Things Out in Blow-up,” Review 72 (Winter 1972), p. 23.
  3. Julio Cortázar, Blow-Up (1959), p. 28.
  4. Cortázar, p. 34.
  5. Cortázar, p. 213.
  6. Cortázar, p. 32.
  7. George Porcari, “Doubting Thomas: Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up.” CineAction, Issue 90 (2013): p. 33.
  8. Cortázar, Blow-Up. p. 28.
  9. Cortázar, Blow-Up, p. 36.
  10. Cortázar, p. 27.
  11. Cortázar, p. 27.
  12. Terry J. Peavler, “Blow-Up: A Reconsideration of Antonioni’s Infidelity to Cortázar,” PMLA, Vol. 94, no. 5 (Oct. 1979): p. 890.
  13. John Freccero, “BLOW-UP: From the Word to the Image,” Theater, Volume 3, Issue 1 (Fall 1970):  p. 118.
  14. Freccero, p. 118.
  15. Peavler, Blow-Up: A Reconsideration, p. 891.
  16. Porcari, p. 41.
  17. Michelangelo Antonioni, The Architecture of Vision: Writings & Interviews on Cinema. Ed. Marga Cottino-Jones. (New York: Marsilio, 1996). pp. 62-63.
  18. Antonioni, p. 317.
  19. Peavler, p. 893.
  20. Rita Guibert, Seven Voices: Seven Latin American Writers Talk to Rita Guibert. (New York: Knopf, 1973), pp. 292-293