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Thomas, a bored London fashion photographer nurturing plans to create a more ambitious album of photos depicting the social realities of contemporary life, happens upon a young woman and an older man embracing in a city park. He begins to photograph them, but the young woman confronts him and demands the negatives. Inviting her to his apartment, he switches film canisters behind her back and develops the photos after she leaves. In the process of making blowups of the pictures he discerns a gunman hidden in the bushes. A playful orgy with two would-be models distracts him from the task at hand. When he returns to the photos and examines them more closely, he realizes that the murder plot was successful after all, but his attempt at playing detective is frustrated at every turn.
From the opening sequence, with its truckful of shouting mimes careening wildly through London streets, Blow-Up (1966) invites the audience to view it as a parable or allegory. With the notable exception of Pauline Kael, who dismissed director Michelangelo Antonioni as a gawking "tourist" among London's youth culture and the film itself as a facile game akin to Last Year at Marienbad (1961), few critics have been able to resist the temptation to decipher Antonioni's puzzle on their own terms. The film has variously been interpreted as an allegory of reality versus illusion, as a commentary on the decadence and lack of meaningful relationships in modern life, or as Antonioni's personal statement about his role as an artist in the world. Certainly, the central sequence of the film, in which the photographer constructs a narrative of the murder by piecing the blowups together, is a metaphor for the filmmaking process and how photography and editing reconstructs meaning from the raw material of existence. Antonioni's self-reflexive meditation on the nature of film has had a direct impact on younger generations of filmmakers, particularly Francis Coppola in The Conversation (1974) and Brian De Palma in Blow Out (1981). A number of critics have singled out the opening and closing sequences with the mimes as examples of forced symbolism, though it should be pointed out that they are realistically motivated, setting the film in the spring during Rag Week, when mobs of students dress up and roam the streets raising money for charities.
In his second color film and first English-language feature, Antonioni largely abandoned the deliberately artificial, expressionistic color effects of Red Desert (1964), such as a cart of fruit painted entirely gray, although some of the London city blocks depicted in the film are disturbingly uniform in color. Rather, Antonioni sets up a more subtle play between black and white and color, the black-and-white elements (photographs, mimes, the interior of the music club) generally being associated with the world of artistic creation, as some critics have pointed out. Blow-Up also marked a departure for Antonioni in that it was an adaptation of a literary work (Argentinean writer Julio Cortazar's brilliant short story of the same title) rather than a wholly original story. In Cortazar's story, a translator and amateur photographer in Paris interrupts an encounter between an older woman and a young boy. After blowing up the photos, he realizes with dismay that that woman was not attempting to seduce the young boy herself but was acting as a go-between for a third character, a man waiting nearby. Antonioni's screenplay, written with his regular Italian collaborator Tonino Guerra and the English playwright Edward Bond, preserves only a few basic elements of Cortazar's original story.
At the same time, Antonioni maintained the spontaneous, improvisatory approach which has set him apart as a director; typically, he refrains from planning specific shot setups until he actually arrives on location and is able to experience things firsthand. During an interview with the French magazine Cahiers du Cinema he said: "I believe in working in a way which is at once reflective and intuitive. For example, a few minutes ago, I isolated myself in order to reflect on the scene which would follow. I tried to put myself in the shoes of the principal character of the film, when he discovers the body. I walked over there, on the plot of grass, into the shadows, under the mysterious brightness of the neon sign. I approached the make-believe corpse and I truly identified with the film's protagonist. I was fully able to imagine his excitement, his emotions, the feelings that would be triggered by my hero's discovery of the body, the way he was going to conduct himself, to move, to react. This lasted only a minute or two. Then the rest of the equipment arrived, and my inspirations and sensations put out to sea." The director's perfectionism and slow working methods no doubt caused considerable anxiety for the studio executives at MGM. According to one account, a sign was posted on the wall of the studio's temporary office in London: "A shot a day keeps the producer away!"
Antonioni's frankness in depicting the decadence of London's youth culture in the 1960s aroused considerable controversy at the time. Most notoriously, in one scene the photographer takes part in an orgy with a pair of girls who come to his studio looking for a break into the fashion industry. The fleeting glimpses of nudity in this scene, which Antonioni steadfastly refused to cut, resulted in the film being released without the MPAA's seal of approval. Far from damaging the film's commercial prospects, it helped make Blow-Up a breakthrough art house hit, the greatest of Antonioni's career; it also contributed to the ultimate demise of the Production Code and the establishment of a ratings system.
David Hemmings, who had played minor roles in films such as Otto Preminger's Saint Joan (1957), made his career breakthrough with Blow-Up; his next major project was Camelot (1967), which teamed him once again with Vanessa Redgrave. Redgrave, who made a deep impression on the London stage in the lead role The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and won Best Actress at Cannes for Morgan! A Suitable Case for Treatment (1966), appears only briefly in Blow-Up but nonetheless stands out as the inscrutable young woman whom Thomas photographs in the park. Jane Birkin gained notoriety in her early role here as a giggling teenager; since then, she has worked mainly in France, appearing in such acclaimed films as Bertrand Tavernier's Daddy Nostalgie (1990) and Jacques Rivette's La Belle Noiseuse (1991). The Yardbirds also make a cameo appearance as themselves in a crowded club. At the time of the film's release Andrew Sarris wrote, "It is possible that this year's contributions from Ford, Dreyer, Hitchcock, Chabrol, and Godard may cut deeper and live longer, but no other movie this year has done as much to preserve my faith in the future of the medium." Blow-Up received Academy Award nominations for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay.
Producers: Carlo Ponti and Pierre Rouve
Director: Michelangelo Antonioni
Screenplay: Michelangelo Antonioni, Tonino Guerra and Edward Bond, based on the short story by Julio Cortazar
Cinematography: Carlo di Palma
Editing: Frank Clarke
Music: Herbie Hancock, The Yardbirds
Set Design: Assheton Gorton
Cast: David Hemmings (Thomas), Vanessa Redgrave (the Girl), Sarah Miles (Patricia); John Castle (Painter), Jane Birkin (Teenager), Gillian Hills (Teenager), Susan Broderick (Antique Shop Owner), Peter Bowles (Ron), Veruschka von Lehndorff (as Herself), The Yardbirds.
C-112m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by James Steffen