‘Blow-Up’ movie analysis: Michelangelo Antonioni creates great work of art and philosophy
Made in Great Britain in 1966, the flat-out great Blow-Up (in the U.K., Blow-Up) was Michelangelo Antonioni’s first English-language effort. “Inspired” by Argentinean writer Julio Cortázar’s 1959 short story Las babas del diablo (literally, “The Devil’s Drool”), Blow-Up was nominated for two Academy Awards – Best Director and Best Original Screenplay (Michelangelo Antonioni, Tonino Guerra, and Edward Bond) – in addition to winning the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and the National Society of Film Critics’ Best Film Award.
Having first seen the two Hollywood films most influenced by Blow-Up, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) and Brian De Palma’s Blowout (1981), I did not know quite what to expect since the former is an excellent film – arguably, Coppola’s best – and the latter is a solid Hollywood thriller. Blow-Up, for its part, 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, forty years later this all seems a bit silly, considering how tame the scenes look to the modern viewer.
‘Blow-Up’ movie synopsis
Blow-Up follows a well-known 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 quite a bit like the then-notorious sex kitten Christine Keeler of the Profumo scandal. I should add that 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. At one point, Bill says 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 the nearby park. Here’s where he happens upon the Vanessa Redgrave character and her silver-haired beau (Ronan O’Casey). When she sees him snapping photos, she comes to get the camera and film. He refuses her.
Later on, as he 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. Also, Antonioni subverts this classic mystery thriller setup by never having it pay off in in Blow-Up.
‘Blow-Up’ and ‘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 bit 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.
David Hemmings, Vanessa Redgrave in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up
Later on, he takes off after the Redgrave character but does not 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 had done the same the previous year in his brilliant Persona, 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?
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’s or fourth party’s. 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 as the Redgrave character (and possibly the corpse) had done earlier. Actually, it’s not just 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 the film.
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 has not solved the mystery of what happened in the park, but maybe he has 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 does not 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 both a rather obvious statement and a superficial one, for Blow-Up was a direct response to the then still “shocking revelation” of the Abraham Zapruder film of the assassination of U.S. president John F. Kennedy, which [was supposed to have] debunked the Warren Commission’s claims of a lone gunman and a kill shot from the rear.
The very fact that over forty years of “experts” have tried to convince people that what they saw – a kill shot from a second gunman from the front – was not true only strengthens Antonioni’s posit 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?” 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 backup that claim. And just asking whether or not there was a murder misses the whole point of the film. That Antonioni, Guerra, and 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.
David Hemmings and Jane Birkin in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up
The Warner Bros.’ DVD of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up is amazingly crisp. The movie looks like it could have been filmed this year – and I say this having seen the last two Woody Allen efforts set in London. Equally amazing is that Blow-Up came out just a year after Roman Polanski’s black-and-white classic Repulsion – a film whose meaning also depends on the eyeline of its lead female character in a photograph, and what she sees or does not see. But while Polanski’s film seems to have taken place forty years ago, Antonioni’s could be set today, save for a few costumes and hairstyles.
Coincidentally, the Blow-Up cinematographer was Carlo Di Palma, who later became a frequent Woody Allen collaborator. Di Palma helps Antonioni exquisitely frame each shot with his trademark odd angles. Also, 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 soundtrack, with the use of long silences as a form of “music.”
Now, the Warners’ DVD does have a few drawbacks. The first is that while the video is great, the audio is quite weak; I had to turn it up so as to hear even regular conversations between characters. I don’t know if this was part of Antonioni’s original technique, or a problem with the DVD. There’s also a fairly pointless music-only soundtrack to the film, featuring Herbie Hancock’s jazzy score. I still cannot figure out the purpose it serves, for there are many minutes with no music and just the images. Perhaps that’s the point? But did Antonioni authorize this?
The DVD also offers a commentary track by The Films of Michelangelo Antonioni author and George Mason University English professor Peter Brunette. Unfortunately, Brunette comes across as a prude and a moralist; instead of discussing the making of Blow-Up and the backgrounds of the principals involved, he rails over and again about the Hemmings character, e.g., accusing him of being misogynistic and dismissing his poorhouse photos as evidence of his character’s superficiality for the images prove he doesn’t really care for the poor. Worse yet, Brunette rails about parts of the film being “offensive” to contemporary politically correct viewers.
About the only things Brunette says of any real value are to correctly acknowledge that the two main characters are never named, and to needle those critics obsessed with the technical aspects of whether photographic blowups could be used in the way shown in the film. He’s right, because much of Blow-Up depends on not what is seen, but what is thought to be seen.
Like Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, Blow-Up works on many levels; yet, Antonioni’s film allows us to participate in its interpretation to an even greater extent than Rashomon. Photographs can distort reality – just ask AP photographer Eddie Adams, who, a few years later took the infamous photograph of a Vietnamese police commander shooting a Vietcong prisoner in the head. What was not shown on the photo was that the prisoner was supposed to have murdered numerous people.
By going beyond being 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 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. On that score, no comment is needed.
© Dan Schneider
Note: This review of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up is a condensed / revised version of Dan Schneider’s text, which can be read in its original form here. The views expressed in this Blow-Up review are those of Mr. Schneider, and they may not reflect the views of Alt Film Guide.
Blow-up / Blow-Up (1966). Dir.: Michelangelo Antonioni. Scr.: Michelangelo Antonioni, Tonino Guerra, Edward Bond. Cast: David Hemmings, Vanessa Redgrave, Sarah Miles, John Castle, Veruschka, Jane Birkin, Gillian Hills, Peter Bowles.
Image of David Hemmings and Veruschka in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up movie: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.