To all of us living through the era of ADD editing, sonic bombast and CGI excess, the 1966 movie Blow Up can be boiled down to some easy selling points: Supermodels and Vanessa Redgrave. Swingin’ London. Herbie Hancock. The Yardbirds. Fabulous fashion. Austin Powers. And murder. What starts out as a film that seems to be about nothing evolves into something much deeper.
Inspired by Julio Cortázar’s short story “Las babas del diablo,” Michelangelo Antonioni’s first English-language release was the British production that helped him ascend from the arthouse to the mainstream and drove a big nail into the coffin of Hollywood’s archaic and heavily moralistic Motion Picture Production Code that had forbidden, among other things, overt depictions of sexuality and drug use since 1930. The film was hailed as a mod masterpiece, but beneath the surface it was, and is, about much more. Blow Up scrutinizes how we view reality—how, through our own vanity, we manufacture our own.
The set up is deceptively simple: A disaffected, self-centered fashion photographer named Thomas (David Hemmings) wanders through his life of shooting fashion models while compiling a book about the poor and homeless of London. He’s a predatory rogue who views women as objects and seems bored with a profession many would feel blessed to have. But after illicitly photographing a woman (Redgrave) cavorting with an older lover in a park, he discovers, upon blowing up the images, that he may have been unwittingly witnessing the prelude to a murder. He is suddenly stirred from his vice-fueled life, but will he actually capitalize on his awakening?
In (likely unintended) defiance of the Production Code’s strict moral guidelines—the film did not receive a certificate of approval, like a few films more before it—the Italian auteur presented a world where sex was often used as a bargaining tool. Two young models wanting to get photographed engage in a playful, half-naked romp in Thomas’ studio. When the woman from the park comes to his studio to ask for the photos, she uses her body as barter. Thomas coaxes sexy poses from real-life model Veruschka by seducing her and simulating arousal to win her over. (That scene was lovingly lampooned by Mike Myers in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me; the Powers saga’s swingin’ sixties vibe, particularly during the opening of the first installment, seems to come right out of Antonioni’s vision.)
Hollywood movies of the time broached the topic of sex through coded language and visual innuendo. Then Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton explored sexual themes through frank dialogue in 1966, and later that same year Antonioni went further by baring some skin on screen. As John Waters noted to me recently, it was the first movie to show pubic hair (at least since pre-Code days, but neither of us was alive then). Whereas this was more common in European films, it was not so for mainstream American releases.
And drugs were certainly present. Thomas teaches the woman from the park to take drags off a joint in conjunction with a Herbie Hancock record. When Thomas seeks out his agent at a party to tell him about the murder, he searches through a whole room of young people getting completely baked. The funniest line in the film occurs when he bumps into Veruschka at the party and gripes, “I thought you were in Paris?” Utterly stoned, she replies, “I am in Paris.”
Jane Birkin’s sexy scene seemed to get shortened with subsequent screenings as projectionists allegedly clipped frames for themselves.
Blow Up emanates a free-spirited, libidinous energy that reflected the time, yet Antonioni was wary of the cultural shift that was emerging, including the sexual revolution. The only true sex act we see occurs when Thomas unwittingly walks in on his painter friend Ron making love to his girlfriend (played by Sarah Miles). Ron is oblivious; she wants Thomas to watch. Everything else in the film feels like a tease.
The famous club scene with the Yardbirds’ strutting performance of “Stroll On” offers Antonioni’s commentary on the burgeoning influence of rock music on youth culture. As Thomas wanders through the club, nearly everyone in the crowd stares emptily at the band rocking onstage. Only when Jeff Beck smashes his guitar and tosses the neck into the audience do they go wild and descend upon it like a pack of ravenous vampires. After Thomas wrenches the guitar neck free from the mob and absconds with it, he discards it as soon as he gets outside of the club. (One wonders what Beck and Jimmy Page think of that depiction today. Funnily enough, Antonioni originally wanted to use the Who, until the Yardbirds’ manager convinced him otherwise.)
The film’s exploration of reality and how we define it is further unpacked in Criterion’s superlative new Blu-ray reissue. Jill Kennington, a real-life top model who appeared in the film, has said that she almost turned it down because she was not like the dumb models that Thomas photographs. She also felt the director took some artistic license in exaggerating certain aspects of life back then. Interviewed two years after Blow Up came out, Hemmings admitted to preferring New York to London. He felt the latter contained layers of artifice that wanted to add up to more than it was. One could easily see how he funneled that outlook into his performance.
Rife with contradictions, Blow Up remains a fascinating film today because the story itself is less concerned with solving the mystery in the park and more about its characters trying to define themselves and their realities in a world becoming liberated from previous social mores. Likewise, Antonioni’s film helped to further diminish the power of the puritanical Production Code, which had taken hits in recent years through films like Some Like It Hot, The Pawnbroker (a 1964 Sidney Lumet film with brief nudity), and the aforementioned Virginia Woolf. Jane Birkin, who played the young blonde wannabe model, recalled in a 1989 interview that her husband at the time of the film, celebrated composer John Barry, had relayed to her how people were lining up around the block just to see her sexy scene, which seemed to get shortened with subsequent screenings as projectionists allegedly clipped frames from the reel for themselves.
In 1968, the Motion Picture Production Code was abandoned in favor of the new MPAA rating system that included the X certificate. A new era of mature and adult-oriented filmmaking—including such wide-ranging and then controversial titles as A Clockwork Orange, Last Tango In Paris, Midnight Cowboy and Deep Throat—was ushered in. Blow Up may seem tame by modern standards, even with some of those films that soon followed, but it still feels fresh, sexy, and touches upon timeless themes. (Among other things, it inspired Brian DePalma 1981’s film Blow Out starring John Travolta.)
Given how overstimulated and hypersexualized our world is today, even moreso than what was depicted back then, Blow Up might have you contemplating blowing up parts of your own life to examine what you’ve been missing out on.