Skip to main content

Blow-Up by Michelangelo Antonioni

Julio Cortázar “Blow-Up,” in The End of the Game and Other Stories (New York: Pantheon, 1967). Michelangelo Antonioni and Tonino Guerra (writers), English dialogue by Edward Bond, suggested by a the story by Julio Cortázar, Michelangelo Antonioni (director) Blow-Up / 1966

Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up begins with an image of deception. Released from either prison or a flophouse (several reviewers have suggested the latter), Thomas, along with other denizens of the place, moves slowly through the gate. The skuzzy young man—whose face, somewhat like Pound’s metro image of “petals on a wet, black bough,” stands out (he is played after all by the photogenic actor David Hemmings) against the gauntly determined faces of the others—carries a small paper sack like a treasure, keeping his distance from his fellow inmates, seemingly resisting their friendly (we hear none of their conversation) advances. The moment they have walked away, Thomas turns and walks in the other direction, settling into a convertible and throwing the bag, containing what we now perceive as an expensive camera, into the back seat. If we haven’t guessed, we might at least suspect something is not as it seems—and, indeed, we later discover that the central figure of this film has been on a secretive “shoot,” snapping shots of the men inside the institution for a book of photographs he is planning to publish with the help of his friend, Ron (Peter Bowles).

Immediately after, we are presented with a carload of screaming mimes, what should be a contradiction in terms, out on what appears to be an obnoxious early morning joyride (I once quipped that all mimes should be shot at birth), but is actually a “rag,” a raucous mod-60s way of raising money for charity.

Thomas returns to his studio/home, ready to shoot the “birds,” dressed in the newest mod fashions, over whom he hovers while caressing and kissing each in order to get them to “perform,” while also alternately berating and verbally abusing them. Such evidently is the lot of a fashion model, for despite all the abuse, the women wait patiently between his frequent absences, while new would-be models stand at his door hoping to gain his admittance.

A quick visit to his artist friend Bill next door reveals similar issues of deception and self-delusion. Bill clearly is deluding himself about his relationship with his live-in girlfriend, Patricia (Sarah Miles), as we perceive through her and Thomas’s intense glances, a relationship that later is more revealed in her quick visit to her neighbor after having sex with Bill. The artist also iterates what will be a major theme of Antonioni’s work: that his art often seems empty until he can extract an image or idea from it. In other words, what seems to be empty may come to have great meaning if looked at long enough or from various perspectives.

It is a dangerous theme for a filmmaker, perhaps, whose works have often seemed to some critics as being plotless and whose images, although stunningly beautiful, seem to many viewers to be disjunctive.

As I made clear in my discussion of L’Avventura, I don’t “read” Antonioni at all in that way. But many early and even later viewers of Blow-Up felt that it was without a coherent story, that its central issue was about illusion and reality, and that these issues were wrapped up in metaphysical concerns. The reviewer of Variety, for example, began, “There may be some meaning, some commentary about life being a game, beyond what remains locked in the mind of the film’s creator…. But it is doubtful that the general public will get the ‘message’ of this film.” According to Ronan O’Casey, who played the mysterious lover of Jane (Vanessa Redgrave) and the later corpse of the film, a reporter from the German magazine, Der Spiegel, “kept saying,” during an interview with him, “But this movie makes no sense—no narrative thread, no plot line!” A number of critics expressed confusion over whether or not there had really been a murder and a corpse.

O’Casey accounts for the confusion by reporting that, after vast over-expenditures, producer Carlo Ponti (who died on January 9th this year) appeared on the set, closing down further shooting, and that Antonioni was left with no choice but to piece together the fragments he had already filmed. The intended story was as follows: the young lover, armed with a pistol, was to precede Vanessa and me to Maryon Park in London, conceal himself in the bushes and await our arrival. I pick up Vanessa in a nice new dark green Jaguar and drive through London—giving Antonini a chance to film that swinging, trendy, sixties city of the Beatles, Mary Quant, the Rolling Stones, and Carnaby Street. We stop and I buy Vanessa a man’s watch, which she wears throughout the rest of the film. We then saunter hand in hand intothe park, stopping now and then to kiss (lucky me). In the center of the park Vanessa gives me a passionate embrace and prolonged kiss, and glances at the spot where her new lover is hiding. He shoots me (unlucky me), and the two leave the park intending to drive away. Their plans go awry when he notices Hemmings with his camera and fears that Hemmings has photos of her. As it turns out, he has.

In a luncheon meeting with O’Casey—whom his friends know as Case—I pointed out that the original story upon which this film is based is far more disjunctive and disorienting. In Julio Cortázar’s masterful tale—which, according to the credits, “suggested” Antonioni’s work—the photographer comes upon a woman and a young boy (15 years of age) apparently engaged in a romantic tryst. He imagines the boy’s excitement and fear as the older woman toys with him, entertaining possible endings of the story: the boy may join the woman for sex, the boy may get cold feet and run, etc. But suddenly he notices something else: a man waiting in a car nearby. His camera catches the movement of the man toward the couple, and he suddenly recognizes the horror of what he has witnessed: that the man himself is involved in the affair, that he has perhaps used the woman as a decoy, has, at the very least, been the cause of her flirtation. What lies ahead for the boy is not an innocent “first love,” but that “the real boss was waiting there, smiling petulantly, already certain of his business; he was not the first to send a woman in the vanguard, to bring him the prisoners manacled with flowers. The rest of it would be so simple, the car, some house or another, drinks, stimulating engravings, tardy tears, the awakening in hell.” When the man spies the photographer, the boy escapes, the man responding, perhaps, by shooting the boy (or woman): “…the man was directly center, his mouth half open, you could see a shaking black tongue, and he lifted his hands slowly, bringing them into the foreground, an instant still in perfect focus, and then all of him a lump that blotted out the island, the tree, and I shut my eyes, I didn’t want to see any more, and I covered my face and broke into tears like an idiot.” Cortázar’s story is not so much about deception—although the couple certainly attempts to deceive the boy—as it is about misperception, the impossibility of ever understanding the whole of any story, and the dangers of believing what one thinks he has perceived. In a sense, I suggested, we should be thankful to Ponti that Antonioni was unable to bring his film to even greater coherency, for then it might have lost any relationship to its purported source.

In Antonioni’s work the photographer sees nothing, a fact he repeats several times throughout the film. Neither does he proffer any imaginative observations. He merely observes a couple in the park, a woman and an older man, who kiss and hold hands. It is the woman’s demand for his film that arouses any curiosity he might have. The later appearance of a strange, fair-haired man following him—even though we may not know who it is (Case sites it as an example of the illogical film clips with which Antonini was left)—further hints that something is amiss; like Thomas, we instinctively sense he has something to do with the woman, reiterated in the action of Thomas checking the lock on his glove compartment upon returning to his car. When Jane actually appears at his door, we understand that she is not, like the other women in Thomas’s life, hoping to model, to get herself on film—although she tries to deceive him by letting him believe she seeks such a career or is offering him sex—as she is interested in getting herself off film by destroying the images he has taken. To Thomas’s first statement to her in the park, “Don’t let’s spoil everything, we’ve only met,” Jane responds, “No, we haven’t met. You’ve never met me.”

Accordingly, Thomas recognizes her deceptions, greeting her at the door as she attempts to escape with his camera; he, in turn, deceiving her by pretending to return the roll of film while keeping the actual canister.

Soon after, the two young girls, who have earlier stalked him in hopes of a career, return, also willing (but reticent) to have sex in exchange for a “shoot.” Thomas also deceives them in a hilarious satire of an orgy, the group wrestling about in, significantly, purple (the color associated with exaggerated literary effects and turn-of-the century sexual tales) paper like three young puppies rather than lustful adults. The minute he has finished, he orders them out.

Like his artist friend, the photographer attempts to extract meaning from his series of purposeless acts. What we and he at first see is nearly the opposite of what Bill does in his art. Bill’s art is made of thousands of dots of color, from which he ultimately extracts an image. Thomas’s work is outwardly a complete image, a representation of the reality he has seen in the park. But as he grows curious about the glance of the woman in the image and the sequence of the events he has witnessed—as he begins to enlarge those images—we are reminded that photographs are also made up of a series a dots; and the more frequently he enlarges those images the more apparent it becomes that they are not “real” at all but rather a series of dots imitating reality, things of art.

What he and we discover in those increasingly hard-to-read, blurred, and dotted artifacts is the occurrence of a real and horrible act; the seemingly innocent love between Jane and the older man was in “reality” a set up, the murderer waiting in the bushes with a gun. A late-night trip back to the park awakens the young man to a new reality: a corpse lies in the dark. Who to tell? How does one speak the truth to a society whose reality is itself blurred by deceit?

By the time he has returned home, his studio has been looted, all but one of the photographs taken. Attempting to report the events to his friend, he accidentally comes upon Jane in the street, but she disappears as quickly as he has spotted her. He discovers his friend at a party where nearly everyone is drugged, quite literally “out of their minds.” The model who has told him she is on her way to Paris answers his quip, “I thought you were supposed to be in Paris,” with a statement that exposes the extreme level of self-deception these people have achieved: “I am in Paris!”

The next morning the corpse is also missing. Thomas no longer has anything left to prove what he has seen, and can only wonder whether he too has not been deceived. Antonioni ends his film with an inevitable, Fellini-like image of a world where nothing but deception is allowed. The car of mimes reappears, entering the park. There the white-faced pretenders take their positions upon the tennis court, playing, in every sense of that word, a game, Thomas watching in bemused silence. Hitting the invisible ball over the fence, they wait for Thomas to throw it back. He pauses, considering perhaps to what level he needs to participate in this world of deceptions, finally joining the pack, picking it up and tossing it back. Just as suddenly, he also disappears.

In my reading of the film Antonioni has created a clearly narrative, quite coherent work about a world that survives on its own pretense, a world that depends upon everyone being deceived. And, in that fact, Blow-Up presents a world, which like a gigantically expanded balloon, should be prepared for precisely what its title suggests, a great bang, an explosion of the air upon which it lives.