Directed by modernist Italian maestro Michelangello Antonioni in his first English-speaking, “Blow Up” is a seminal movie of the 1960s, at once an influential art film and a pop culture phenomenon, capturing swinging London like no other film before or since.A biggest surprise box-office hit, “Blow Up,” which had earlier won the Palme d’Or at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival, is still a puzzlingly mysterious, visually stunning, largely unresolved picture, full of intentional and unintentional ambiguities, which may explain why we keep revisiting it.
Inspired by the short story “Las Babas del Diablo” (“The Droolings of the Devil”) by Argentinean writer Julio Cortázar, the film probes into the nature filmmaking, the dialectical relationship between illusion and reality, and the politics of involvement by artists whose professional ethos require moral detachment.
The screenplay was penned by Antonioni and his frequent collaborator, Tonino Guerra, with the English dialogue being written by British playwright Edward Bond. The film was produced by Carlo Ponti, who had contracted Antonioni to make three English language films for MGM (the others were “Zabriskie Point” and “The Passenger”).
Thomas (David Hemmings), the elusive protagonist, is a young, handsome photographer immersed in a lifestyle of drugs, parties, and orgies with models. Wandering the park one day, Thomas observes from a distance two lovers embracing. The woman, Jane (Vanessa Redgrave), noticing his act, runs after him and asks for the negative back. He refuses. After snapping photos of the couple, he develops them at his studio. The photos disclose a murder mystery: a man with a gun pointed at the back of Jane’s partner.
Later that evening, when Thomas returns to the park, this time without a camera, he finds a man’s corpse on the grass under a tree. At a cool party on the Thames River near central London, Thomas finds the French model and his publishing agent (Peter Bowles). He hopes to bring the latter to the park as a witness, but he can’t articulate what he had seen. By the time he gets back to the park alone, at dawn, the body is gone.
Thomas watches with bewildered amusement some university students playing and watching a mimed tennis match, is drawn into it, picks up their unseen, make-believe ball and throws it back to the two players. While he watches the mimed match, the sound of a ball being played back and forth is soon heard. In the film’s last, impressive shot, Thomas stands alone on the grass before vanishing without a trace.
In all of his films, Antonioni made a significant contribution to film art, helping shaped expectations of what narrative is–or could be, and experimenting with visual style that favors extremely long takes, deliberate pacing, and elaborate mise-en-scene over montage.
With the exception of the music—Herbie Hancock’s jazzy score–the movie holds up extremely well. The neo-surreal images are crisp and captivating. Moreover, half a century later, the film’s main theme, individual responsibility, is still relevant. As a cautionary morality tale, Blow-Up” shows the ease with which it’s possible to avoid responsibility in a world where there is no clear moral code and no clear line between reality and illusion. In the ambiguous ending, Thomas avoids commitment, altogether renouncing the significance (and even existence) of physical reality.
“Blow-Up” was Antonioni’s foray into more commercial international cinema, after making the highly acclaimed trilogy: “L’Avventura” (1960), “La Notte” (1961) and “The Eclipse” (1962), all starring Monica Vitti, which played in film festivals and were limited to the art house circuit. It’s the director’s second film in color, after “Red Desert,” in 1964. “Blow-Up” (1966), “Zabriskie’s Point” (1969), “The Passenger” (1975) were made in English, in an effort to appeal to a larger, international audience.
The year of 1966 was a turning pint in the career of Vanessa Redgrave (daughter of Michael Redgrave), having made the sensational “Blow-Up” as well as the controversial black-and-white indie, “Morgan,” for which she received her first Best Actress Oscar nomination; she also had a cameo in Fred Zinnemann’s “A Man for All Season.” Jane Birkin made her screen debut as one of the teenage girls with whom Thomas has an orgy.
Thomas (David Hemmings)
Jane (Vanessa Redgrave)
Patricia (Sarah Miles)
Teenager one (Jane Birkin)
Teenager two (Gillian Hills)
Ron (Peter Bowles)
Shopkeeper (Henry Hutchinson)
Patricia’s husband (John Castle)
Antique shop owner (Susan Broderick)
Fashion editor (Mary Khal)
Oscar Nominations: 2
Director: Michelangelo Antonioni
Story and Screenplay (Original): Antonioni, Tonino Guerra, Edward Bond
Oscar Awards: None
In 1966, the winner of the Best Director was Fred Zinneman for “A Man for All Seasons,” which swept the major awards. The Original Screenplay Oscar inexplicably went to Claude Lelouch and Pierre Uytterhoeven for “A Man and a Woman.”
Guerra was also Oscar nominated (with others) for his scripts for Mario Monicelli’s “Casanova 70″ (1966) and Fellini’s “Amarcord,” in 1975.
“Blow-up” became a cause celebre due to its sexual content, specifically full frontal female nudity. When MGM, which distributed the film in the U.S., didn’t get the Seal of Approval from the MPAA Production Code in America, it released the picture through Premier Productions. The film is a seminal turning point in the history of the Production Code, which began to collapse in the mid-1960s (“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Was also released in 1966) and was brought to demise in 1968.