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by Robert Flaxman

"If a man falls in the forest and no one is around, did it really happen?"
5 stars

It's nearly impossible to discuss Blow-Up, Michelangelo Antonioni's first English-language film, without drawing comparisons to L'Avventura, Antonioni's 1960 satire of modern life. Blow-Up is filmed both in English and in color, but it has many of the same critiques to make, this time on the society of 1966 London instead of 1960 Italy. Though less focused than its predecessor, the simple beauty of Antonioni's plot and wry humor make the film no less than a satirical masterpiece.

David Hemmings plays a photographer who is never given a name in the film, but who appears to be quite popular. He is putting together a book of pictures of the homeless, and women come by his studio begging to be photographed. He seems to have a general disdain for the models with whom he works; fashion shoots pay the bills, but his real passion is just getting out with a camera and taking shots of whatever catches his eye.

Looking for a tranquil shot to close out his homeless pictorial, Hemmings ends up in a quiet, secluded park, where he tracks a couple who appear to be in the throes of passion. After finishing, however, he finds that the woman (Vanessa Redgrave) has chased after him, demanding to have his film. He refuses to give it to her; later, she tracks him to his studio, where she flirts with him in hopes of obtaining the negatives. He hands her the wrong reel and develops the right one, at which point he discovers that his camera appears to have been the only witness to a murder.

This is the first part of the satire of modern life, both the most interesting and the least vicious. Hemmings is a sort of natural voyeur, but he can't actually see anything if he doesn't have photographic proof of it. The camera functions both as his eye and his brain. When his studio is ransacked and the only photo of the body he has left is too blurry, he seeks out his editor to return to the park and take a picture. He doesn't call the police, of course; without a picture, it is as if his story is useless, even if the body is still there.

When he finds his editor, though, the latter is at a party with all kinds of drugs being passed around. Letting himself get drawn into it, Hemmings awakes the next morning realizing he has never been back to the park. By the time he gets there, the body is gone. Antonioni wants to know what makes this group of people seem so disaffected. Why is Hemmings so nonchalant about the body, when he devoted significant time to developing the pictures that showed its existence in the first place? He is a man who cannot live life through his own eyes; he is certainly not affected by his pictures of the homeless, as he wanders out of the homeless shelter and then, rounding a corner, hops into his Rolls Royce. This shot begins to affect him, but ultimately he succumbs to the same drug-addled ennui that burdens the rest of the London scene.

At the film's close, Hemmings watches a group of mimes perform a game of tennis on a court. Antonioni's camera moves as though it were following the ball, even though none actually exists. When the ball is mimed to have gone out of the court, Hemmings tracks it down and mimes throwing it back. Something that he can't see is now more real to him than something he saw, but could not reproduce. He seems to have finally figured out his problem, just in time for the film to end with his disappearance from the field; having come to the right realization, he is no longer a part of this society.

It's a subtle, wonderfully detailed theme, and Antonioni films it brilliantly. There is much more to chew on in Blow-Up, however, and not all of it works as well. One of the best parts of the film is a scene in which the guitarist of the rock band (the Yardbirds) that Hemmings is watching gets angry and breaks his guitar to bits, and throws the pieces into the crowd. Though he has just walked in, Hemmings fights tooth and nail to come away with the best part, only to drop it on the ground as soon as he leaves the building. A pedestrian sees this and picks it up, only to drop it himself after a couple seconds. Hemmings has already been established as a collector of things that catch his eye, but the suggestion here is that popular culture is not worth all that. Supposedly The Who were supposed to appear in the film only to leave over a disagreement; perhaps they figured out what Antonioni seems to have had in mind.

Other scenes leave more to be desired. Redgrave's seduction of Hemmings adds very little even to the film's main plot, since she has the flat ransacked later anyway. The bizarre three-way sex scene (which features plenty of nudity but not really any sex) adds even less; presumably the intention was to frame Hemmings' character as someone immersed in this culture before he could break out of it, but the rest of the film did that just as well. More than likely Antonioni was mostly out to prove he could get away with the nudity, still quite a taboo at the time. These scenes make the film seem a little more rambling, however; L'Avventura had a very simple plot, but it did by and large stick to it. Blow-Up wanders off the beaten path time and again, putting in little tidbits and scenes that don't mesh especially well with the larger picture. The worst they really do is mess with the film's pacing, though; on the whole, Antonioni's camera and Hemmings' smartly transitory performance - from disaffected cool to catharsis - hold things together.

Though it may not be as focused as L'Avventura, Blow-Up is tighter (it runs more than 30 minutes less), more fun to watch, and ultimately deeper. It doesn't hit every mark, but it does get most of them, and the way in which it does so is remarkably satisfying. Dated only in its wardrobe, Blow-Up is as relevant and compelling today as it was forty years ago. Its ultimate question, if self-applied, leads to a disturbing revelation about society - if a man falls in the forest and no one is around, did it really happen? Antonioni doesn't think so, and the sad part is that he's probably right.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=8769&reviewer=385
originally posted: 10/14/04 19:25:26
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Sydney Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Sydney Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

5/03/13 Clambake A masterpiece. If you weren't there, you can't imagine what the 1960s were like. 5 stars
8/28/09 Sugarfoot Overrated and lame... 1 stars
5/01/09 Mandy Very intriguing. I call this art, however, I don't think teenagers today could understand. 3 stars
1/19/09 Arthouse Monkey Antonioni understood both film language and the era he was living in. Masterpiece. 5 stars
1/17/09 Giles Very moody atmospheric film but ruined by Arty direction, very slow too. 2 stars
12/22/07 mr.mike sort of the "anti-Hitchcock" film , recommended only to pretentious buffs like me. 4 stars
12/13/06 Jon Warner My second favourite film, after Pabst's Pandoras Box. It changed my perspective on life. 5 stars
8/14/05 Laura Piece of shit 1 stars
6/08/05 Agent Sands Supposedly brilliant, but it's a great triumph keeping your mind from wandering. 2 stars
2/01/05 PaulBryant Robert, that was one EXCELLENT review. Didn't like the movie quite as much as you though. 4 stars
10/11/04 Fred Hannah This is dreadful. The Emperor's New Clothes of film. 1 stars
2/19/04 R.W. Welch Intriguing mystery with innovative camera work, though slowly paced. 4 stars
2/19/04 Charles Tatum Annoying, "hip" pic 2 stars
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  DVD: 17-Feb-2004



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