CR Movie Club: Blow-up

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This is CR Movie Club. Each week in quarantine, we’re revisiting a classic film from yesteryear to explore why we loved it in the first place and how it holds up over time.

While Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-up was awarded the Grand Prix du Festival International du Film at its 1967 debut at Cannes (the prestige film festival’s highest honor), it was condemned by the National Legion of Decency upon its arrival to the states. Ripe with the sexual awakening of counterculture-era London, the fashionable thriller stars David Hemmings as Thomas, a fictionalized version of the photographer David Bailey whom inadvertently documents a murder, and a roster of ’60s vixens—Vanessa Redgrave, Sarah Miles, Jane Birkin, Tsai Chin, and Veruschka as herself. Eventually, Blow-up, which was the first English-language movie by the Italian film legend, would spur the demise of the very rules that it broke (the Motion Picture Production Code also known as the Hays Code) and later influenced Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation as well as Brian De Palma’s Blow Out. Fifty plus years later today, the film manages to somehow both surpass yet also flounder the tests of time.

Without this past decade’s efforts to headline abuse, Blow-up is lost to the misogyny and hierarchical temperament of our past. In fact, the film’s original controversy was not due to its portrayal of a bachelor photographer taking advantage of his vulnerable muses but rather because it showed nudity to the masses. In Thomas we see a gatekeeper—as an en vogue photographer he can turn any normal girl into a star—but also a chauvinistic demagogue. One wrong move can set him off—and it does. He terrorizes others, screams in their faces, and touches who and what he wants whenever. In the film’s opening sequence he straddles Veruschka for her photoshoot (he’s an hour late) and then walks away from her as if she were no more than an object on the floor. Later, Thomas pushes aspiring models (Birkin and Hills) down to the floor, knocking over a clothing rack to peel off their clothes. While their actual threesome isn’t shown, the girls’ frightened laughter says enough.

In spite of these hard-to-watch moments, there is a strange flirtation throughout the film that complicates the viewer’s emotions. From the girls he torments to the antique dealer whose shop he wants to buy, Thomas’ antagonism is met with seduction. Even though we know better, somehow he convinces the women and us the audience that they were indeed “asking” for it. Thomas’ entire livelihood it seems is built around this abuse of power, and as the young, convertible-driving man about town that he is, he blasé to all of his thrills. In a sense, Thomas is his own addict: disconnected from his reality yet dependent on it to continue to live. When he unwittingly captures a woman (Redgrave) having her lover murdered in a park on film, he is reenergized. But the mystery too becomes an obsession, and another game that if he doesn’t defeat will defeat himself. He eventually connects the dots by developing his film and enlarging—or “blowing up”—the photo print, hence the film’s title.

Sex and misogyny aside, Blow-up‘s power is ultimately in its ability to dissect the mundane. That, and the fabulous costumes, of course. (Fun fact: While no costume designer is credited to the film, Rebecca Breed is listed as wardrobe supervisor, and likely the mod pieces that populated the film were clothing pulled off the rack.) In spite of the seemingly glamorous life Thomas lives, he is still disassociated from it and bored beyond belief. Neither acts of violence nor the grandiose seem to affect him. Briefly awakened by the perverse realization of murder, Thomas searches for more, only ultimate to fade back away into his own thoughts.

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