BLOW-UP detonated in 1966 as director Michelangelo Antonioni’s first English-language film, startling hip moviegoers—or those who fancied themselves as such—with its visual stylizing of an opaque who-did-it? plot cocooned within a seemingly random narrative framework, one that left ‘definition’ up in pseudo-intellectually-expelled air apparently so rarefied that only adjective-addicted movie critics could pierce the gaze haze and faux decipher exactly what the hell it all meant. Some of the overkill praise was—remains—patently embarrassing, effusive enough to gag a woke unicorn. As a brazenly self-conscious valentine to “Swinging London”, it’s an amusing time capsule look at ego-licking on a Warholian scale. As a mystery, once it stops dallying with set-up and replaces impatience with curiosity, it draws you in. As a tactile reward, a conceptually realized piece of Art to be enjoyed for pure aesthetic flair, it’s a winner. As a Statement, about the camera’s ability to distort reality and therefore inhibit Truth and its value being relative to an individuals take on a subject—well, let yourself debate that until the espresso runs out and nervous looks on how much tip to leave replace justifying pretentious flavors of bullshit that spewed with a straight face might actually get you laid. If nothing else, the sight of a merrily careening jeepload full of mimes will have you reconsider Britain’s strict gun laws.
Successful fashion photographer ‘Thomas’ (David Hemmings), whose persona and behavior is a co-equal blend of arrogance and insolence (somehow catnip for star-struck “birds” whose strained frivolity is only exceeded by their essential vacuity) takes a break from being casually cruel to his models and skips to a park to snap a few nature shots. Chance capture of a couple meeting there results in ‘Jane’ (Vanessa Redgrave) the woman in question, following up Thomas with a desperate plea for the negatives. He begins to look closer at his seemingly innocuous shots: seems like foul play was present. When not following his piqued interest in what the photos might reveal, we are invited to observe Thomas as he glides through a 3-way with two rabbity-cute idiots, a pot party (hands up if you ever went to a “pot party”), a rock show and some relationship ennui expressed by the dead-zoned wife (Sarah Miles) of his roommate.
Fine, knock yourself out. We hate to agree with the dragon Pauline Kael on anything, but her review nailed this one to a tee, or, more to the point, did a fabbitchy job roasting the somersaults too many felt cocktail-bound to perform in order hopefully lap foam from the wave this movie was part of. The sex & nudity content pushed mainstream boundaries (Western Civilization is still here, albeit tottering). Retro cool comes from a gander at Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page, part of The Yardbirds, in the neat-yet-absurd concert sequence: their number is a roister off “Train Kept a’ Rollin”, yet the crowd sits there like they’re drenched in Novocaine. The whole thing with the twit hopefuls (Jane Birkin and Gillian Hills), romping with Thomas in & on those purple sheets of paper is simply stupefying; uncomfortable fakeness about as sexy as assault & battery.
Hemmings, of course, was a fine actor, likewise Redgrave and Miles, but there is absolutely no-one to give a damn about in this film, and the posing, prancing and fake-intensity is ridiculous. Antonioni was Oscar-nominated for Direction, understandable as regards virtuosity, and for the Screenplay (O, for God’s sake, people!), which he co-wrote. *
Made for $1,800,000, it hit big, 21st place in the States for ’66, with a gross in the region of $20,000,000. With Veruschka, Peter Bowles, Tsai Chin. 111 minutes.
* Co-writing the screenplay with the director was Tonino Guerra, who’d done the chore for Antonioni on L’Avventura, La Notte and L’Eclisse, as well as writing Marriage Italian Style, Sunflower and many others. Edward Bond (who later wrote the screenplay for Walkabout) then put their dialogue work into English. The idea germ came from “Las babas del diablo/The Devil’s Drool”, a short story by Julio Cortazar. Another influence was London-based fashion photographer David Bailey, one of the photographers whose style, talent and adventures helped mold “Swinging London”. Are we really supposed to be thankful for that?