- Blow-Up (1966) movie review: In his first English-language film and most commercially successful effort, Michelangelo Antonioni questions the very perception of reality and breaks censorship barriers while creating a seminal work of art.
- Blow-Up was nominated for two Academy Awards: Best Director and Best Original Screenplay.
Blow-Up movie review: Michelangelo Antonioni tackles the perception of reality in ‘Swinging London’-set masterwork
Having first seen the two Hollywood films most influenced by Blow-Up, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) and Brian De Palma’s Blow Out (1981), I didn’t know quite what to expect since the former is an excellent film – arguably, Coppola’s best – and the latter is a solid thriller.
For its part, Blow-Up is not only a great work of art but a great work of philosophy as well, one as impressive as Antonioni’s Italian masterpiece La Notte (1961).
Also of interest, Blow-Up caused a bit of a stir upon its release for its depiction of female nudity, casual sex, and drug use. Of course, 40 years later this all seems silly, considering how tame the scenes look to the modern viewer.
Has a murder been committed?
Inspired by Argentinean writer Julio Cortázar’s 1959 short story “Las babas del diablo” (literally, “The Devil’s Drool”), the Blow-Up movie plot centers on a well-known London fashion photographer (David Hemmings) who may or may not have inadvertently captured a murder on film, which may or may not involve a mysterious young woman (Vanessa Redgrave) who looks like the then-notorious sex kitten Christine Keeler of the Profumo scandal. (Despite a number of reviews referring to the two leads as Thomas and Jane, neither character is actually named in the film.)
The photographer lives next door to an abstract expressionist painter, Bill (John Castle), and his girlfriend, Patricia (Sarah Miles), to whom the photographer is attracted and who seems to return his feelings. Of note, at one point Bill explains he has no intent when he starts a painting; meaning only comes later. This is the key to Blow-Up, or at least a warning on how viewers should take what they see.
The next day, the photographer takes some photos in a nearby park. Here’s where he happens upon the Vanessa Redgrave character and her silver-haired beau (Ronan O’Casey). When the woman sees the stranger snapping shots, she comes to get the camera and film. He refuses her.
Later on, as the photographer develops the film he notices the woman looking off into the distance, seemingly horrified. He follows her eyeline and blows up the photos, which eventually reveal a man with a gun lurking in the bushes.
This moment suggests an homage to Alfred Hitchcock, whose films were loaded with such surprises – though Hitchcock’s efforts were certainly less existential. Besides, Antonioni subverts this classic mystery thriller setup by never having it pay off.
‘The existential power of images’
The photographer initially believes he has prevented a murder, but later he sees on one of the blow-ups what seems to be the silver-haired boyfriend’s dead body behind the bush. He deduces all this in silence, peering at the images; it’s a bravura sequence showing the existential power of images and the mind’s propensity to construct tales from them. It’s as pure cinema as has ever been filmed: Just images; no words, and no musical cues to say, Aha!.
The photographer returns to the park at night and sees the body, but he has forgotten his camera. Curiously, the body is wide out in the open – a hint that all the photographer sees may not be so.
In the morning, he returns to the park, but the body is gone. And so is all his evidence, for his studio has been burglarized. Since Antonioni never allowed us to see from over the photographer’s shoulder while he took his photos, we do not know how “real” the shots were to begin with.
Later on, he takes off after the Redgrave character but doesn’t find her; she “vanishes” as people often do in films. In addition to making us question our lead character’s trustworthiness in interpreting reality, Antonioni is also winking at his audience, telling us Blow-Up is just a movie. (Ingmar Bergman did the same in his brilliant Persona [also 1966], making it clear audiences were watching a film, an artificial construction, not reality.)
So, has the photographer imagined the whole murder scenario from what was an innocent encounter in the park?
Invisible tennis ball
Near the end, in another bravura touch we see the photographer look up to the sky. Then cut to the sun as seen between leaves on a tree. The camera pans down; the next shot is at a right angle from the photographer’s eyeline – meaning it was not his point of view, but an omniscient one or that of another party. This hints to the viewer that not only is the photographer not a reliable witness, but neither are we.
Did any of it happen?
As the photographer walks away, he sees a bunch of anarchic mimes, who frame the story, now assembling for a game of faux tennis with an invisible ball and rackets. The photographer gets into it and so does Michelangelo Antonioni’s camera, which follows the “ball’s” flight when it’s smashed over a fence. The photographer retrieves it, tosses it back, and thus buys into their reality to the point that we now even hear a real tennis match going on. (Note that we never heard a gunshot in the park; another clue that reality can be skewed.)
The photographer is then alone in the grass field – the same one seen in the film’s opening credits – and one eerily like the golf course at the conclusion of La Notte. He vanishes right before the film ends, just like the Redgrave character (and possibly the corpse) had done earlier.
Actually, it’s not merely a vanishing act, but almost a “pop” or a “blowup” of his form – another play on the title. It’s one more bravura moment to cap Blow-Up.
Curiously, throughout Blow-Up David Hemmings’ character is a total cipher, going through the motions of life without any apparent convictions.
He mostly looks like a joyless man, whose failure at film’s end seems to have rebirthed an appreciation for life – his and others’. Perhaps he hasn’t solved the mystery of what happened in the park, but maybe he has gained an insight into his life and will pursue real art again; maybe even tell Bill’s girlfriend that he loves her.
In that regard, Blow-Up seems to end a bit prematurely, leaving the viewer to fill in not only the existential blanks, but the more realistic narrative ones as well. This is good, for unlike Hollywood filmmakers, Antonioni doesn’t sneer at his audience. He trusts their intelligence.
Many critics have claimed that Blow-Up is about the nature of reality, citing the final scene as their “proof.” But that’s a rather obvious statement and a superficial one, for in the film Antonioni posits that reality can be distorted unless verified.
It’s worth noting that when the photographer tells Patricia of the “murder,” her reply is to ask, “I wonder why they shot him?” In other words, she asks the query in the conspiratorial plural, not why “he,” the singular man in the bushes, shot the boyfriend.
Other critics claim Blow-Up is simply about “loneliness,” but offer little to back up their claim. And just asking whether or not there was a murder misses the whole point of the film.
That Antonioni and co-screenwriter Tonino Guerra (with the assistance of English-language dialogue writer Edward Bond) deliberately plant information at odds with one another, and that the director never lets the audience have a glimpse at what “really happened” lifts Blow-Up far above Hollywood’s drab fare.
Like all great art, Blow-Up can be viewed in multiple ways – almost all of which are correct, to a degree. Those that aren’t, are still part of the fun.
Blow-Up movie holds up
The Warner Bros.’ Blow-Up DVD is amazingly crisp. Cinematographer Carlo Di Palma, who later became a frequent Woody Allen collaborator (Radio Days, Alice, Bullets Over Broadway, etc.), helps Michelangelo Antonioni exquisitely frame each shot with his trademark odd angles.
Equally amazing is that Blow-Up came out just a year after Roman Polanski’s black-and-white classic Repulsion – whose meaning also depends on its lead female character’s eyeline in a photograph, and what she sees or does not see. But whereas Polanski’s thriller seems to have taken place 40 years ago, Antonioni’s could be set today, save for a few costumes and hairstyles.
What’s more, there is no one in film quite like Antonioni when it comes to the use of blank space; his closest equal would be the Dutch painter Jan Vermeer. That same special technique is recapitulated on the Blow-Up movie soundtrack, with the use of long silences as a form of “music.”
Meaning of ‘meaning’
Like Rashomon, Blow-Up works on many levels; yet Antonioni’s film allows us to participate in its interpretation to an even greater extent than Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 classic.
By going beyond a mere whodunit while engaging the very meaning of “meaning” itself, Blow-Up illustrates the differences between the writer and the visual artist. The former elicits significance from things that need to be seen, while the latter does so from those already seen.
In truth, there could be plausible – and non-criminal – reasons for all that happens in Blow-Up, with only the dull life of David Hemmings’ photographer to spur him on to imbue significance to the events. That we can never know the truth within the film is the real truth as to why Blow-Up never loses its hold even after repeated viewings.
Director: Michelangelo Antonioni.
Screenplay: Michelangelo Antonioni, Tonino Guerra, and Edward Bond (English-language dialogue).
From a screen story by Michelangelo Antonioni inspired by Julio Cortázar’s short story “Las babas del diablo.”
Cast: David Hemmings. Vanessa Redgrave. Sarah Miles. John Castle. Jane Birkin. Gillian Hills. Veruschka von Lehndorff. Peter Bowles. The Yardbirds (Keith Relf, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Chris Dreja). Peggy Moffitt. Tsai Chin. Michael Palin. Janet Street-Porter.
“Blow-Up Movie (1966) Review: Antonioni’s ‘Swinging London’ Masterpiece” review text © Dan Schneider; excerpt, image captions, bullet point introduction, and notes/endnotes © Alt Film Guide.
“Blow-Up Movie (1966) Review: Antonioni’s ‘Swinging London’ Masterpiece” is a condensed/revised version of Dan Schneider’s text currently found in its original form here.
“Blow-Up Movie (1966) Review” endnotes
Jane Birkin, Gillian Hills, Vanessa Redgrave, and David Hemmings Blow-Up movie images: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
“Blow-Up Movie (1966) Review: Antonioni’s ‘Swinging London’ Masterpiece” last updated in September 2021.