Lawrence Russell

Blow-up (1967) dir. Michelangelo Antonioni writ. Antonioni and Tonino Guerra (from the story by Julio Cortazar) cine. Carlo Di Palma music Herbie Hancock, Yardbirds, et. al. star. David Hemmings (Thomas), Vanessa Redgrave (Jane), Peter Bowles (Ron), Sarah Miles (Patricia)

An arrogant English fashion photographer spontaneously photographs a pair of illicit lovers in a London park and later, by a process of photo enlargements, discovers that a murder has been committed. He returns to the park at night, sees the body of the male lover, but when he returns again at dawn, the body is gone, thereby bringing into question the reality of the incident. Based on this brilliant central premise, the action is set in the mid-sixties counter-culture of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll.

There's an improv feel to many of the scenes which reflects the mood of the times, where the formalist mores of the past were being pushed aside in favor of free-association narrative. This leads unfortunately to occasional weak acting and illegitimate voyeurism... and the frustrating inclusion of several failed symbolisms which undermine the story in favor of an artistic narcissism.

The Photographer (Hemmings) tries to buy an antique shop (we're never really sure why) but comes away with a large wooden aeroplane propeller instead. While it fits in with the industrial chic of the Photographer's studio, it never fits in with the story either as text or sub-text. The same is true for the guitar neck he recovers from a scrum in a nightclub when a musician smashes his instrument in frustration and throws the pieces into the crowd. Like much of the dialogue, there's an attempt at some sort of ellipsis -- the sort of ghost narrative of absurdist theatre -- but the enigma is more false than intellectual, more infantile than mystical.

This is especially true of the celebrated ending. Completely flummoxed by the mystery of the disappearing lovers (the body and the woman), the Photographer returns to the park after an evening of dissipation, goes over the ground yet again. The only constancy is the wind in the trees and bushes, a sort of supernatural ambience.

A group of ragging students roll up in a Landrover, engage in a game of imaginary tennis. Their faces are whitened like circus mummers. As two play, the others press against the wire enclosure, following the progress of the "game". When the invisible ball is hit out of the court, the Photographer picks it up, throws it back, thereby being drawn into their version of reality. Now the Photographer can actually hear the click of the rackets and the movement of the game. The film ends with an aerial view of the Photographer, a pull-back shot which places him as just another detail in the landscape... a familiar Antonioni tableaux.

There's no reason why this metaphysical analogue shouldn't work, but like a lot of the other aspects of this film, there's a sense of contrivance, even amateurishness. What was once seen as hip is now revealed as attitude without substance.

The acting doesn't help. Vanessa Redgrave is wooden, perhaps compromised by a script which demanded she be naked and erotic -- surely an oxymoron! As an English brute, Hemmings has a dangerous, misogynist edge to his role, but too often he is caught posing rather than acting.

Antonioni has to take the blame for these and the other curious embarrassments of being an Italian filming in England: the hero drives around in a convertible, drinks red wine, wears tight white pants like an androgynous gigolo from the hustle in Florence or Rome. While he could paint the sets -- and even some streets -- Antonioni couldn't quite paint England.

© LR '67-- '99


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