Movie Review : Blow-Up (1966)
* a suggestion by Seb Doubinsky *
Michelangelo Antonioni's iconic post-war angst piece Blow-Up isn't that well-known outside of college classes anymore and there are reasons for that. Not only it belongs to an older, more adventurous era in moviemaking, but it is set in a world that doesn't quite exist anymore. A world that questions itself and the chain of events that lead to what it is. Blow-Up is an existential masterpiece that is difficult, frustrating and that teaches you a whole new way to watch movies. It felt great watching it again.
Blow-Up is the story of Thomas (David Hemmings), a petulant fashion photographer. He walks out of a shoot one day and starts taking photos of a couple in a park. The woman (Vanessa Redgrave) reacts violently to his presence and requests the negatives from him, but refuses to tell him why it's so urgent. Amused, Thomas gives her an appointment at his studio and walks out on her. Over there, they have a conversation, flirt and he deliberately gives her the wrong roll of film. When he develops the park photos, he finds out the reason why the woman wanted them so badly: the was a dude hiding in a bushes, aiming at them with a gun.
The first thing you need to know about Blow-Up is that, like in every Antonioni movie, form and narration work hand-in-hand. It is set in the ultra-aesthetic world of a fashion photographer and that what we see is what he sees. Well-framed, deliberate shots, well-contained movement, clever color pairings, things like that. He becomes obsessed with following and shooting the couple in the park because they project an emotion that doesn't fit into his artificial vision of the world, so they're mysterious to him. He's longing for the spontaneity of the forbidden lovebirds, a desire not that uncommon for post-war artists.
Where Blow-Up goes from there is up to interpretation, but i'll give you my best shot. I mean, it gets surreal as fuck once Vanessa Redgrave's character leaves. Thomas finds the mystery man hidden in the bushes, the corpse in the park and goes through a drug-fueled wringer that consists of a Yardbirds shows, a depraved party where his ex tells him she's not even there and a mimed tennis game. What does that even mean? I'm one of these people who believe the corpse scene was a dream/hallucination. That "shooting" in this case is a double-entendre that reflects Thomas' voyeurism and his dissatisfaction with a world without surprises he built for himself.
Blow-Up is, ultimately, the story of a man who is confronted to the limits of something he mastered. Thomas is an elite photographer who can fit anything into his aesthetic vision, or at least he thought. When he's confronted to something that eludes him, his brain rewires reality through photography, the medium he masters. He is never given an explanation for what is going on between Vanessa Redgrave and her lover. He just pieced up a narrative from scraps of information he gathered and convinced himself it was the truth. Sounds familiar? That's because facts vs truth is something we've been arguing with the President of the United States for 18 months now.
I must've seen Blow-Up three or four times now, but it's not an easy movie to get into. Michelangelo Antonioni has a way of telling a story that feels counterintuitive to contemporary moviemaking. There are silences, lengthy shots, non-verbal storytelling and the occasional non-sequiturs thrown-in for the hell of it. It's still quite relevant today, though, as we argue about the nature of truth itself in media. Blow-Up is challenging, frustrating at times, but it's clever and rewarding in a way not that many movies are anymore. It earned the right not to be forgotten.