“I wish I had tons of money…Then I’d be free.”
Blow-up, Michelangelo Antonioni’s Palme d’Or recipient, subverts one’s desires and expectations while undermining typical narrative conventions. In Blow-up, Antonioni presents a murder that is “caught” by the protagonist’s camera, one which never actually receives its expected resolution. This subversion is well-executed as the audience sees their anticipation wither and torment them as a group of mimes engage in imaginary tennis.
Similarly, in Antonioni’s 1960 film, L’Avventura, it begins with a person’s disappearance — one whose subsequent search is void of resolution. Instead, Antonioni chooses to focus on a character who is weak and trying to cope in extravagant society. Antonioni subverts expectation and tests the audience’s patience, as well as narrative standards, in both films.
But is this subversion just Antonioni teasing his audience, or does it carry a deeper and more complex significance? In fact, yes, it very much does. Antonioni describes his intention of narration in L’Avventura as him wanting to “achieve the suppression of outward physical action” in the interest of a “greater interior realism.” Meaning, he wants to show the world in a manner that is true to life and realism.
Interestingly enough, Blow-up tries to capture “unrealism” with a trust in realism. The “unrealism” I refer to is a phenomenon in life that includes people’s beliefs, perspectives, values, and most importantly, perception. First off, Blow-up is set in England during the counterculture movement of the 1960s and 1970s. The choice in setting welcomes the concept, and it provides a basis to highlight differences, because counterculture is a reaction and rejection to established values. Antonioni immediately defines the movement as he opens Blow-up with an energetic carload of mimes juxtaposed with slow-paced factory workers. Not only does the opening compare contrasting lifestyles, but it outlines the entire film. The mimes are an extreme representation of societal change. They run through crowds with screams and cheers, visually representing countercultures impact on society.
The torch is then passed to a character bored of society, who emerges in the crowd of factory workers. Thomas, an egocentric, apathetic character with misogynistic tendencies, is portrayed by David Hemmings. Thomas is a photographer who has an elaborate studio with a strange layout riddled with corridors and secret passageways, which externalizes his self-worth and controlling personality. Thomas is awful to his clientele and exploitative to every woman he encounters, only interacting with the outside world to benefit himself and disregarding privacy with his camera. Thomas has arbitrary demands and he searches antique shops buying objects on a whim, such as a propeller and various statues.
Blow-up, specifically Thomas’ scenes, are problematic. As I previously said, Thomas uses his power to manipulate and treat women as objects, calling them “birds” and “bitches,” but he also hits and demeans them. I always try to rationalize problematic scenes to see the “deeper significance,” but I really question Antonioni’s intent here. He could have established Thomas’ character in a less explicit manner — even the “shock factor” seems overblown. I understand that the film’s explicit material is a countercultural product, but there are scenes that go past “art.”
So my question then becomes this: Could the film achieve its deeper significance by trimming these scenes? Well, I believe so. Thomas uses his camera in his life, and photography is his choice in medium. As a reclusive, he believes that the way he sees life is a reality. Earlier in the film, Thomas converses with a painter, and the painter retells how the little things make him grow attachment to his work. The conversation seems to come out of nowhere, but it foreshadows Thomas’ own personal artistic revelation. Thomas captures a murder, one that is never proven to be a murder, because Antonioni subverts it with the mimes. Mimes perceive a tennis match, even though it is clearly imaginary, in their chosen medium.
Thomas watches the match, and when the imaginary ball is thrown over the fence, he throws it back to the mimes. The ending is poetic.
— Christian Mietus, Film Blogger
Carringer, Robert L. “Blow-Up.” Journal of Aesthetic Education, vol. 9, no. 2, 1975, pp. 109–122. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3331738.