Blow-up (1966): Antonioni's Misleadingly Titled Film Contains No Explosions
For the next few weeks I’m going to use my weekend watches for films that I think I should have seen or haven’t seen in a while. The first film I’m going to talk about will be the former. There are films you really can’t seem to hardly avoid if you enjoy certain other films. With a love for Italian cinema, and giallo in particular, one of those films quickly has become Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 film Blow-up. After a successful run of films in his native Italy, Antonioni was enticed to come to England to make a trio of films for MGM. While the other two films, Zabriski Point and The Passenger, met with moderate reception, Blow-up was widely hailed a triumph, and it was rewarded with two Academy Award nominations and the Grand Prix prize at the 1967 Cannes Film Festival.
The film stars David Hemmings, future star of Camelot, Deep Red, and The Heroin Busters, as Thomas, a self absorbed fashion photographer with aspirations un the art world. One day while in the park he photographs Jane (Vanessa Redgrave) frolicking in the park with an older man. He snaps quite a few pictures of the scene, but Jane wants them back. In fact, she follows him all the way to his studio to get them. Instead of the negatives she wants, he gives her another roll and develops the pictures himself. As he looks at the pictures, he begins to notice something in them. Blowing up tiny details in his shots, he uncovers a murderer and his victim hiding in the frames.
If you’re not in the mood for a film with a glacial pace, then it might not be the time for Blow-up. Its nearly two hour running time is anything but action packed, and there’s nothing resembling thrills or suspense to be found. This is really a character study wrapped up in themes of loneliness and isolation. The murder mystery, which doesn’t even enter the film until the midway point, is not the focus or even the end result Antonioni was intending. A large portion of the film seems to be focused on how self involved and isolationist the “swinging” ‘60’s counterculture really was.
For the first half of the film, I had no idea where it was going. Character development definitely was taking a front seat, and seeing as I was expecting a mystery to unfold, many scenes felt only glancingly pertinent to the story. Why did I have to go with Mr. Hemmings while he checked out a junk shop and bought a propeller? Why did I need to see him do a photo shoot for a group of girls who looked like Speed Racer’s sister, a mutant peacock, and half a lamp? Yet as the film started to unfold in the back half, it finally became clear. My expectations were dashed, but I still found a film I rather enjoyed.
David Hemmings, who I have loved in so many genre films over the years, was a fairly unknown actor when he was cast as Thomas, a character loosely based off English photographer David Bailey. He’s been plenty good in all the features I’ve seen him in, but here he took it far beyond. His character seems to swing from braggart to isolated introspection with relative ease, and Hemmings does a fantastic job with the transitions. He brings the character to life in the silent moments with his dialog heavy sections adding layers to the performance.
Co-starring with Hemmings is Vanessa Redgrave, and if you haven’t seen Miss Redgrave in her younger days, then you’re missing something. Putting her foxiness to the side for a moment, Redgrave turns in a solid performance as Jane, the girl who is trying to recover the pictures. Antonioni wanted Swedish actress Eva-Britt Strandberg for the part, but the powers that be at MGM thought her nose was too big. I’ve never seen anything with Strandberg in it, but I find it hard to believe she could turn in as vulnerable a performance as Redgrave manages.
When the film originally came out in 1966, there were mixed reactions to it. Some felt the film was a plodding boring mess while others thought it a work of genius coming from the New Wave of European cinema. In the end, it was a financial success, but there were some who had their own thoughts about that. Jack Nicholson was once quoted as saying, “It now seems that the reason for the success of Blow-up was that it included the first beaver shot in a conventional theater.” I’m sure he’s correct that the allure of nudity, and there’s plenty of it, held some sway over potential audiences. Nicholson went on to say, “It’s a success such as Antonioni has never had before or since.” This might be some sour grapes from Jack though as he starred in Antonioni’s English language follow up, the much less profitable film The Passenger (1975).
I don’t know that Blow-up will be a film that I will go running back to watch again and again, but I’m glad I saw it. With its focus on style and meaning over substance, I can see how it went on to influence films from both Italy and the United States. The influence it had over gialli as a sub-genre seems less apparent though. That being said, it is a film that rewards the attentive viewer, but it will not be suited to everyone’s taste. So check it out, but only if you’re sitting down for a dedicated viewing. Otherwise you might just miss something hiding in the frame.