“What did you see in that park?”
“It’s the story of a day in the life of a photographer and what he experiences during this day. I say ‘experience’ because it’s through his photographs that he discovers what he hadn’t seen.” This comment from director Michelangelo Antonioni introduces three essential aspects of his extraordinary 1966 film, Blow-Up. The “day in the life” framework that encloses David Hemmings’ lead character, a photographer never identified in the movie but named Thomas in the script, alludes to the trivial banality that defines much of his daily schedule. Extending from this, where there is often a lack of conventional narrative progression, there is instead the “experience,” not only Thomas’ but the viewer’s. Blow-Up is not so much about what happens in many cases, but rather how it is happening and what one sees (or experiences) as it is happening. From there, it is through a pictorial medium—photography for Thomas, cinema for the Blow-Up audience—that one engages with what transpires. Altogether, the film becomes an experiment in action versus inaction, in plot versus mood, and in reality versus perception. It is all of this and more, which is why the Criterion Collection has dished out one of its finest packages for an individual title. It is a worthy compliment to a stunning motion picture that still challenges, provokes, and fascinates more than fifty years after its release.
Inasmuch as there is an established plot to Blow-Up, its genesis forms when Thomas is casually snapping some photos in a London park. He spies a couple and begins to click away at what seems to be their flirtatious merriment. Skulking along, he is soon spotted by the young woman (Vanessa Redgrave)—also not referred to by name in the film but identified as Jane in the script—and she swiftly accosts him, demanding his camera roll, which he flatly denies. She grows increasingly panic-stricken and, in the scenes that follow, desperate and persistent. It is only when Thomas begins to examine the photographs that he realizes what she and her mystery man (Ronan O’Casey) may have been up to. There’s another person in the bushes. There’s a gun. Upon his return to the park, he finds a corpse. But what exactly happened, who was involved, what did Thomas actually observe, and, most importantly as far as the film is concerned, what did his camera capture?
The turning point in Blow-Up, when Thomas begins to enlarge and scrutinize the photographs, is also the film’s most astonishing sequence in terms of formal boldness and self-reflexive commentary. For roughly 11 minutes, most of which are completely silent save for some low-level diegetic sound effects, Antonioni’s concentration coincides with Thomas and his own deliberation; he moves from room to room, looking from picture to picture, piecing together the apparent murder as the incident comes into focus in a larger sense, and becomes ever fragmented in its literal photographic shape. It is a revelatory depiction of the evolving crime and a detailed illustration of technical methodology (Blow-Up is nothing if not an ode to photography as an art and profession). At the same time, Antonioni is calling attention to the process of image-making and storytelling, adopting Thomas’ point of view as he oscillates back and forth—panning and zooming—from one amplified picture to another, essentially putting into motion these still frames and recreating the confrontation, forming the narrative of what occurred. As Thomas connects with the imagery, so too does the active viewer.
Hemmings thought this pivotal scene was too slow, and in fact he didn’t care for Blow-Up at all the first time he saw it. But it’s a crucial moment in modern film history, one that shows the importance of the image, of analyzing the image, and one that reflects the corresponding preoccupations of its meticulously visual creator. Antonioni shares an aesthetic bond with Thomas, a shared fascination with composition and the carefully crafted copy/reflection of reality. With this film, Antonioni took his fixation so far as to paint houses, roads, and even the grass in order to attain a specific shade. With cinematography by Carlo Di Palma, who had done spectacular work on Antonioni’s Red Desert (1964), Blow-Up has a basically realistic palette (far more so than that earlier feature, which in part owed its exaggerated canvas to the main character’s s distressed mental condition), but it is still manipulated and is undeniably striking for that reason. In addition, the art direction by Assheton Gorton and the costumes by Jocelyn Rickards generate a world—and a film—obsessed with artifice and the appearance of things. Antonioni’s graphic precision manifests itself in his coordination of props as well. As Redgrave notes in an interview on the Criterion disc, these elements were not necessarily relevant to the story, but were vital to Antonioni’s spatial atmosphere. Thomas’ studio, for instance, is rich with lights, furniture, photographic accessories, and jutting beams that block and balance Antonioni’s frame. It’s little wonder Jane Birkin, also in an archival interview, refers to him as an “architect.”
Redgrave and Hemmings had each been in several films before Blow-Up, and each were involved with theatrical productions when Antonioni approached them. But for Hemmings especially, this would be not just his breakthrough role, but the one for which he would forever be identified. Chosen only after Terence Stamp declined the part, Hemmings gives an exceptional, multifaceted performance, as Thomas is himself a complex and contradictory character. Adept at doing some undercover photog work in a doss-house before hopping in his Rolls-Royce and speeding away, he effortlessly alters his persona to suit his fluctuating needs. He is egotistical, impatient, cruel, and condescending, particularly with his models (a quintet of pros and some budding young amateurs played by Birkin and Gillian Hill) but his personality can turn on a dime, just like his passing fancies. Thomas is impulsive—running, jumping, popping in and out of rooms and going out of his way to meet people for no ostensible purpose, leaving or tuning out before any possible outcome. He is both carefree and careless. But suddenly, with his homicidal discovery, he has a goal of sorts. Yet it too is transient and is but a half-hearted motivation, one continually thwarted by sporadic asides of varying importance.
Unlike his previous films, which largely tended to dissect the form and function of a modern romance between two or more people, Antonioni stated that Blow-Up was about a relationship between “an individual and reality—those things that are around him.” The “things” phrasing is important. Just as Thomas is gripped by objects and the tools of his trade, he treats the women in his life much the same way. Referred to as “bitches” and “birds,” they are mere props to be used to his changeable ends. One need look no further than the famous scene with the model Veruschka, which is a physical, sensual, carnal, and almost comically vigorous session, but ultimately, it concludes as he steps over her like a discarded utensil.
Blow-Up was spearheaded by international super producer Carlo Ponti, the one who first conceived of a project hovering around a London photographer. He had Antonioni locked into a three-picture, English-language deal for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (one wonders what old Louis B. Mayer would have had to say about the film’s nudity and drug use), with the following two projects to eventually include Zabriskie Point (1970) and arguably Antonioni’s most underrated film, The Passenger (1975). With English dialogue provided by British playwright Edward Bond, Antonioni wrote Blow-Up alongside Tonino Guerra, who had collaborated on the director’s prior international triumphs and later wrote with Federico Fellini and Theodoros Angelopoulos, among others. The basic premise of the film was inspired by a Julio Cortázar story “Las babas del diablo,” included with the Criterion release, which follows a translator in Paris who witnesses a seduction rather than a potential murder.
Antonioni had already ventured out of Italy with his episodic 1953 film I vinti, about murderous youth in his native country as well as England and France, but it was only after visiting muse/lover Monica Vitti on the set of Joseph Losey’s Modesty Blaise in 1965 that he found London in a wildly attractive and revolutionary situation. For those turned off by the unconventional narrative of Blow-Up, or even the off-putting nature of its protagonist, the film is a valuable cultural document for its vivid portrayal of swinging London, with Rag Week revelers, anti-war protesters, and a concert by The Yardbirds, featuring a horde of dead-eyed mannequin spectators and rock luminaries Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck, the latter doing his best Pete Townshend guitar-smashing routine (the coveted neck from which is attained by Thomas and, predictably, tossed by the wayside).
After Hollywood’s Production Code refused to give the picture its seal of approval, MGM released Blow-Up through a subsidiary company where its public availability proved to be just one in a number of steps taken to dismantle the outmoded censorial system. The film became a global phenomenon, earning two Academy Award nominations for Antonioni, as best director and for best original screenplay, which was somewhat amusing given that accounts describe the script as being anywhere from 14 to 75 pages long. It also won the Palme d’Or at the 1967 Cannes Film Festival, an honor for which Antonioni had twice before been nominated (L’avventura  and L’eclisse ) and would be again twice more in the future (The Passenger and Identification of a Woman ).
Early in Blow-Up, Thomas’ artist friend Bill points to an abstract leg in one of his paintings, using it as an example of something one can find and hang onto in the midst of chaos and outward disorder, like a “clue in a detective story.” He says the work then “sorts itself out.” But as Blow-Up sorts itself out, Antonioni, largely through Thomas, repeatedly resists resolution. According to David Forgacs, in his excellent essay for Criterion, “O’Casey later claimed that the compressions and ellipses in the murder plot were made because the film had gone over budget,” but as Forgacs argues, “given Antonioni’s aesthetic prerogatives, it seems unlikely that this was the only reason.” For Antonioni, such obfuscation was and would remain par for the course. He had been down this road before, with the ironically named L’Avventura most notably, where the mystery of that film yields anything but a taut, pulse-pounding adventure. While Blow-Up is a more traditional thriller than that (but still in a very loose sense of the word), as its plot thickens, it does so on a slow simmer.
There is much that happens in Blow-Up and, at the same time, there isn’t. Even the critical murder does little to encumber a series of unrelated actions, persistently preventing an unimpeded investigation. There is still tension in this lack of development, but it’s a restless anxiety born from Antonioni’s hesitations and his daring interludes. In the end, once the evidence is gone and Thomas enters a state of uncertainty, the viewer is likewise left with doubts about the validity of what happened and where the truth lies. And when Jane seems to disappear right before Thomas’ eyes, or when the group of youthful merrymakers play a game of tennis with non-existent rackets and balls, the unreliability of observation expands, leaving one to simply accept the flux of illusion and certainty. There may not always be an explanation, but there doesn’t always have to be. It’s the same rule that applies to Blow-Up, where questions linger long after its conclusion. Which is just as well. After all, as Antonioni has commented, “A film you can explain in words, is not a real film.”