Blow-Up (1966) is a classic art house film that was recently restored for release by the Criterion Collection (spine #865), masters of art house film restoration and presentation.Even more notable is the film’s international pedigree. It was directed by Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni and is his first English language film, taking inspiration from a short story by Julio Cortázar, an Argentinian writer.
The film follows fashion and lifestyle photographer Thomas (David Hemmings) through a day or so as he conducts photo sessions, works on his photo book, and happens upon a murder. But he only discovers the latter occurred after some photographic sleuthing. First, he is pursued by an anxious Jane (Vanessa Redgrave), one of the two subjects in the photos he took earlier. She is disinclined for Thomas to possess said photos and locates him at his studio, demanding the negatives.
Before and after the encounter and interaction with Jane, Thomas is found working in his studio and discussing a photographic monograph with his editor Ron. From the get-go, viewers will find Thomas to be a posh photographer (he’s got a car radio to communicate with this studio) who is also arrogant. Later on, when we learn he’s making a book of photos featuring London’s more derelict citizens (perhaps they are homeless, but they are otherwise lower class), he comes across as even more of a phony rather than an observer. With his lifestyle, Thomas couldn’t possibly be connecting with the subjects of the book; he’s exploiting them. The models themselves are exploited and neglected. Those involved in a group shoot remain in his studio after he’s left and told to have their eyes closed.
Strikingly, Antonioni composes the film with an eye towards photography. During the first photo shoot (with the single model), Antonioni observes the rule of thirds. The model and the studio work in unison to give the scenes a more photographic connection — the model is on the right third in one scene and some feather sets are guiding viewers’ eyes towards her.
Later on, as Thomas discovers the secrets in the photos from the murder (he didn’t give Jane the real roll), the camera pans back and forth when Thomas is piecing together the event essentially giving the audience an almost first-person view of his deductive reasoning. Thomas utilizes his photographs and the necessary blow-ups for detective work. Unfortunately, his studio is ransacked soon after, the evidence (he never reports the crime) is lost and the film moves on.
Blow-Up may feel unresolved but it isn’t incomplete. The film is a fascinating capsule of ’60s London (it includes a live performance from the Yardbirds), an enigmatic art house film, and an interesting cinematic experience for a photographer. It ends with Thomas watching mimes playing tennis. If that isn’t thought-provoking enough for a cinephile, I’d be hard-pressed to think of anything better.
The Criterion Collection has included some great extras on the Blu-ray disc (details below). The highlight might be Blow Up of Blow-Up, a new 52 minute documentary by Valentina Agostinis covering the film. This mini-doc includes interviews from many involved in the production and gives more context around the film’s location and era. There are also interviews with the key actors, two older pieces with Hemmings (~26 minutes total) and a 44-minute talk from 2016 (“In Conversation” with Philippe Garner) with Redgrave. Garner appears again in a critical featurette “Antonioni’s Hypnotic Vision” (~46 mins) which gives a really great exposition on the elements of photography and its influence on the film.
Disc Features: (via Criterion)
- New, restored 4K digital transfer, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
- New pieces about director Michelangelo Antonioni’s artistic approach, featuring photography curators Walter Moser and Philippe Garner and art historian David Alan Mellor
- Blow Up of “Blow Up,” a 2016 documentary on the making of the film
- Conversation from 2016 between Garner and actor Vanessa Redgrave
- Archival interviews with Antonioni and actors David Hemmings and Jane Birkin
- PLUS: A book featuring an essay by film scholar David Forgacs, an updated 1966 account of the film’s shooting by Stig Björkman, the questionnaires the director distributed to photographers and painters while developing the film, and the 1959 Julio Cortázar short story on which the film is loosely based
- New cover by Rodrigo Corral
Synopsis: (via Criterion)
In 1966, Michelangelo Antonioni transplanted his existentialist ennui to the streets of swinging London for this international sensation, the Italian filmmaker’s first English-language feature. A countercultural masterpiece about the act of seeing and the art of image making, Blow-Up takes the form of a psychological mystery, starring David Hemmings as a fashion photographer who unknowingly captures a death on film after following two lovers in a park. Antonioni’s meticulous aesthetic control and intoxicating color palette breathe life into every frame, and the jazzy sounds of Herbie Hancock, a beautifully evasive performance by Vanessa Redgrave, and a cameo by the Yardbirds make the film a transporting time capsule from a bygone era. Blow-Up is a seductive immersion into creative passion, and a brilliant film by one of cinema’s greatest artists.