Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up released in 1966 was the Italian director’s first entirely English language film. It tells the story of a David Bailey-like photographer in swinging sixties London. The kind of guy that spends the night shooting photojournalism in a doss house in south London then spends the morning on a series of Vogue-style shoots with international fashion models.
Thomas the photographer, played by an out-of-his-depth David Hemmings, is both a serious documentary image-maker and an arrogant dictator who seems to enjoy using his wide range of cameras as a tool for control and sexual seduction. That this is how many film directors like to see themselves will not have been lost on Antonioni.
As in his previous and first colour film Red Desert, Antonioni and cinematographer Carlo Di Palma are well in control of the material and there’s a brief and scintillating sequence where the Italian masters of style have painted the whole of Stockwell Road maroon as Hemmings drives past in his convertible Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud.
Blow Up is at its best when the camera is following and documenting the life of the photographer, working at his craft and creating his images.
But we probably have to blame the language barrier and the lead actors themselves for their less than scintillating performances.
As in Antonioni’s L’Avventura this is a film about searching, and Hemming’s character spends a lot of time looking through his lens and at the prints of the photographs he has taken in a near-deserted Maryon Park in south-east London where he secretly captures two lovers meeting. The woman, played by Vanessa Redgrave, confronts him and later follows him to his studio to ask for the negatives.
This is a film about photography and about seeing the things most people don’t see in everyday life. Whereas in L’Avventura the body is ever found, here the photographer finds a body but doesn’t trust reality until he has photographed it with his camera. Photographers and film directors assemble images to tell a story. When the images fail or disappear then the story is no longer valid and no longer has meaning.
Blow Up is at its best when the camera is following and documenting the life of the photographer, working at his craft and creating his images. Creative people are at their best when they’re doing what they do well, and it’s this that makes Blow Up a valuable work rather than it’s depiction of the 60’s London scene.
It’s a work that could have been better if the photographer had been played by an actor with the credibility of a Terence Stamp and if Redgrave’s role had been played by Antonioni’s former muse Monica Vitti, who would have brought more depth and fragility to the character. Antonioni and his crew may have been at their best in Blow Up, but they needed those in front of the camera to be at their very best to create a more lasting work of art.