Director: Michelangelo Antonioni
Writers: Michelangelo Antonioni and Tonino Guerra
Starring: David Hemmings, Vanessa Redgrave and Sarah Miles
Director and co-writer Michelangelo Antonioni wanted to capture the 1960s London lifestyle with his classic 1966 film Blow-Up. The opening scenes show a clash in cultures as the working class finish their shifts and mimes run through the streets. The main character is a photographer that enjoys the rebellious nature of the protestors he sees at points in the film, but never engages personally. There is a sense that there is no defining culture of London and the way people see it clashes massively while at the same time melds together. Blow-Up is an influential masterpiece that would inspire the careers of great directors such as Dario Argento and Brian De Palma. It also single-handedly changed the way age ratings worked in America. The film went against Hollywood’s Production Code and led to the abandonment of the code, to be replaced by the MPAA rating system.
The story revolves around photographer Thomas (David Hemmings) who while taking pictures in a park stumbles across a couple kissing. He takes many pictures of them and after he is spotted by the couple, the woman Jane chases him down and demands the photos back. He tricks her, giving the wrong role of film. When he develops the pictures he thinks he may have accidentally photographed a murder and gets the feeling that someone is out to get him.
Thomas is a strange character. From almost the first moment on screen, he’s an unlikable character. He’s rude, arrogant and treats the models he is photography as if they are toys. At no point in the film does he show any redeeming qualities. When two hopeful models arrive, it leads to a very uncomfortable, but not graphic, sex scene that makes you want to look away before the camera does.
The sequence where Thomas is developing the pictures, enlarging them and trying to figure out if he can see something, is absolutely fantastic. The whole scene is hypnotic and really gets under your skin. Going through the process of developing the pictures in the dark room, and giving time for that to be shown in detail, creates a building tension. There’s no indication beforehand that there might be something in the background, but as Thomas starts to piece it together, so do you. It’s incredibly shot and heightened even further since the scene is almost silent, with no music. Apart from footsteps and the photos moving there isn’t a sound.
The whole film is minimalist when it comes to sound design and it creates a sense of hyper-reality. It makes you focus on everything on screen, not wanting to make a sound and cut through the atmosphere. The pivotal scene in the park, there is almost nothing to be heard. The wind through the trees is barely noticeable, the footsteps seem dimmed, the only sound that runs through is the clicking of the camera with each shot.
When music does kick in, it’s a jazzy piano score that’s played through the record player in Thomas’s studio. There’s something offbeat to it that makes it unnerving. This contrasts massively with the big loud moment of the film in the club with The Yardbirds on stage. It almost feels like it’s taken from another film, it’s so different to every other scene. This scene also contains one of the best examples of one of the themes of the film, that we create the society we live in and it only exists because we all agree that it does.
There’s a theme of protest and counterculture running throughout, from the mimes at the start, the protesters, and the tennis game at the end. The Yardbirds scene, shows a crowd that isn’t reacting to the music. There are only 2 people dancing, the rest just stand there completely still and silent, it’s uncanny. When Jeff Beck breaks his guitar and throws the snapped neck into the crowd, everyone goes wild and crazy. They need the piece of his guitar. Thomas grabs it runs outside and realises it’s just a broken piece of guitar and discards it on the floor. It’s only valuable in the room because everyone wanted it, as soon as the guitar piece is out of that setting it is worthless.
The scene at the end also reflects the theme further, the mime group play tennis without any rackets or balls. The camera follows the imaginary ball from each side of the court, in an almost hypnotising way. You can almost see it on screen, as the people watch the imaginary ball go back and forth, you’re the odd one out for not seeing it and almost fall in line. The film then ends with questions unanswered, just a strange sense that you’ll never fully understand the world around you.
Blow-Up is unfinished. There are scenes that would answer some of the questions that were never shot, mainly because the film ran massively over budget. There are still hints throughout of this in the final product, things that happen that aren’t explained and some background shots that would have more sense in the full context. Ronan O’Casey, who played Jane’s lover who was murdered in the park, wrote a detailed letter to Roger Ebert detailing the production and some of the scenes that hadn’t been shot. The film is better with the mystery unresolved, it gives you enough to feel fulfilled and then lets you work everything over in your mind. It’s worth reading the letter, it’s easy to find online, but only after watching the film.
There are some films that will stay with you for a very long time after watching them and Blow-Up is definitely one of them. It’s a minimalist masterpiece that plays with your mind and puts you in the shoes of the main character. It’s an incredibly quiet film, that goes against tropes. The dialogue is minimal, the camera is kept close to Thomas at almost all times. There is a sense that London is oppressive, and the paranoia is evident as the main mystery unfolds. Everything builds to something uncanny and unnerving, and it still works fifty-five years on.