Blow-Up (1966, Michelangelo Antonioni)

Blow-Up is a day in the life picture. It opens with protagonist David Hemmings on his way out of a flophouse; he’s not a tramp; he’s a wonder kid fashion photographer who’s been undercover all night to snap pics. The film reveals all those details gradually. It takes until about halfway through the picture to find out the photos are for a book he’s putting together with editor Peter Bowles. The book doesn’t seem to include fashion photographs, however. Hemmings seemingly hates his success at photographing models. Unfortunately, he takes out that resentment on his models, who he despises for falling for his Svengali tactics. He’s a right bastard.

The film never shows Hemmings’s perspective. It never asks the audience to identify with him, empathize or sympathize with him. Instead, director Antonioni establishes a close third-person perspective and never strays. There’s usually a brief establishing shot from Hemmings’s point of view—visually—and then the rest of the sequence is looking at Hemmings from the setting. The film takes place over roughly twenty-four hours, with Hemmings moving through a series of time-appropriate vignettes. Most of the vignettes are about him being a jackass, some are about him being an artist, some are about the culture he’s in, both big-scale mid-sixties London and then small scale artist culture.

Hemmings lives in his studio, where he’s got various people working. One of the first scenes has him giving rolls of film to an assistant for developing. After a few more scenes, the assistant delivers the photos. Blow-Up never forgets the linear structure. As fantastic as Hemmings’s day will get, it’s just a day, and he’s just one person amongst a million. He’s a solitary egotist, with his painter friend John Castle living on the same property. The living situation is a little unclear. Though Hemmings’s real estate pursuits are an essential but unexplored bit of the ground situation. Similarly important but mostly unexplored is Hemmings’s relationship with Castle’s wife, Sarah Miles. They have an intense flirtation. Miles is only in a few scenes, but Antonioni gives her the close third-person treatment as well. If Blow-Up were a bigger story, she’d obviously be part of it.

But it’s not a big story. It’s a tiny one.

In the course of his day, Hemmings finds himself with time to kill in near a park and, being a photographer, wanders while taking pictures. He comes upon a couple in the park—Ronan O’Casey and Vanessa Redgrave—and follows them. At least a third of the way through the film, this sequence is the first time Antonioni lets Hemmings just be. Every other moment he’s either conning or controlling someone, but at the park, he’s childish. It starts with him running and jumping for fun, enjoying tiring himself, then when photographing O’Casey and Redgrave, he turns it into an espionage adventure. He hops fences, hides behind trees, clearly entertaining himself because O’Casey and Redgrave aren’t fooled, and she comes over to confront him.

Their first encounter provides insight into how Hemmings responds when challenged. He’s used to people either fawning over him or at least being obedient to his whims. Later, when Redgrave tracks him down at the studio, she’s going to be more susceptible to the Svengali techniques. That sequence is the most character development Hemmings does onscreen, with him either lying at length to Redgrave (who may be lying at length right back at him) or being startlingly honest with a stranger. It’ll be an outside the everyday experience for Hemmings, whose entire life seems to be—but isn’t—a series of abnormal experiences.

Redgrave’s at the studio trying to get the pictures he took, which presents him with a problem. He’s got to magnanimously acquiesce to a beautiful damsel in distress, but not really because he wants the pictures for his book. Adding to the dilemma is Redgrave appears willing to go to extreme lengths to get them back, giving some more rare insight into Hemmings’s actual character. He’ll sort of roll it back soon after once he’s gotten the high of being not just a great photographer but an unintentionally great detective.

The film only shows a handful of Hemmings’s photographs and quickly. We never get to see his fashion photography. We know they’re good because he’s successful, whereas the photographs of Redgrave and O’Casey are good, but also Antonioni has baked regard into them. We saw Hemmings take the photographs, we briefly saw what he was photographing, and then there’s the pay-off. Antonioni’s got a whole approach to Hemmings as photographer, where Hemmings is often developing a photograph in real-time, but the audience doesn’t see that process. Blow-Up is full of photographic gadgetry and process, just without any fetishization. It’s about seeing what Hemmings is doing, not what Hemmings is doing. There’s never any voyeuristic aspect to it either, thanks to Antonioni’s constantly close third-person narrative distance.

It’s exceptional work.

The third act has Hemmings trying to work through the consequences of his discoveries and finding himself unable to control much of anything. It’s a phenomenal character study, especially since he’s gradually revealed to be far less narcissistic than initially implied. The finish, with Hemmings haggard from another sleepless day, stirs in all the themes for a fascinating vignette. So good.

Excellent direction from Antonioni, photography from Carlo Di Palma, editing by Frank Clarke. Clark’s cutting is stunning. The script—from Antonioni, Torino Guerra, and Edward Bond—is sharp while subtle. There’s a superb meta-bit where Hemmings comments on the unimportance of names, something few of the characters have spoken onscreen.

Excellent score from Herbie Hancock.

Blow-Up’s a remarkable success.

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