2017 AFI Fest, Cinema's Legacy, TCL Chinese Theater

Blow-up (1966) was the first of writer/director Michelangelo Antonioni’s English language films. During the opening credits, mime pranksters cavort to a funky Herbie Hancock tune. They then climb into a jeep and go on their merry way around London. The scene shifts abruptly to a large group of men leaving the temporary shelter of a doss house. The camera focuses on a blond man in the group, younger than the rest, carrying something in a paper bag. Like the others, Thomas appears down-and-out with tattered clothes. Defying expectations, once he separates from the group, he climbs into a posh convertible and drives off.

Thomas is an impostor, a chameleon.

When he changes into a stylish shirt and white jeans in his Notting Hill photography studio, he’s also playing a role. Snapping pictures furiously, saying “give it to me,” he’s like a lion tamer, dominating the formidable model Veruschka through the force of his personality. With cinematographer Carlo Di Palma, Antonioni captures the rhythm of this erotic dance. The director is meticulous in creating the look of the settings and characters. Costume designer Jocelyn Rickards [The Knack …and How to Get It (1965), Morgan (1966)] sets the tone with the mod fashions happening at the time.

Teenyboppers Gillian Hills and Jane Birkin crash the studio

We’ve now seen Thomas at work. He treats his gorgeous models like dirt but gets the job done. Personal relationships including with his estranged wife (Sarah Miles) prove more difficult. Despite his rough way of speaking, he’s an aesthete. He forages in antique shops for inspiration and visits an expressionist painter who lives nearby. The painter comments on his own early work: “They don’t mean anything when I do them, just a mess. Afterwards I find something to hang onto . . . it’s like finding a clue in a detective story.” Finding meaning in seeming randomness later becomes important.

When Thomas walks into Maryon Park, he leaves swinging London and enters a well-manicured replica of the natural world. The greenery of the park contrasts with the red bricks and dark colors of the city seen earlier and gives the sequence a dream-like mood. Sound is minimal, only his footsteps and the wind rustling through the leaves are heard. At first, he’s happy, even jumping and clicking his heels.

Strangely, one section of the park is nearly deserted except for a couple he tries to snap photos of. The woman of the couple, Jane (Vanessa Redgrave) runs up to Thomas, objecting to being photographed and here the film takes a dark turn. In so many words, he explains that his voyeurism is for art’s sake, then adds, “Most girls would pay me to photograph them.” It’s a mystery why she so vehemently demands he turns over the photos.

Back at his studio, perhaps remembering his friend’s comment about “finding a clue in a detective story,” Thomas enlarges the photos. By strategically arranging these “blow ups,” as in a motion picture storyboard, he finds a clue, leading to other clues. This turns into an obsession, even if no one other than the guilty parties really care. The Conversation (1974) and Blow Out (1981), would later borrow from this motif but Antonioni did it first. When we first met Jane, she seemed buttoned up in appearance and attitude. In a surprise appearance at the studio, she’s wearing the same checked blouse and skirt, but she’s transformed, alluring. Like Thomas, she’s also capable of putting on an act. Is she too a figment of his vivid imagination? That’s one of the many riddles the film never quite answers. Searching the city for clues, he wanders into a nightclub where the Yardbirds are playing. Mayhem ensues.

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