Reality Versus Illusion in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up
In 1973 the world of cinema was enthralled by the premiere at the Cannes Film Festival of an exciting but somewhat cryptic new film by the director of La Ventura (which was initially received with scorn in 1963 at the same festival) L’Eclipse and Red Desert. The film was called Blow Up, and unlike Antonioni’s previous Italian cinematic ventures, it was filmed in English and shot entirely in London. It opens with a scene featuring a group of mimes riding around London in the early morning in an open vehicle and making lots of un-mime-like noise. This opening scene will seem completely unrelated to the rest of the film that follows, but in fact it is key to understanding it.
On first viewing Blow Up appears to be a cross between an art film and a bacchanalian party feature about the ‘swinging London’ of the 60s and 70s. Many viewers were left to wonder: “Was this an art film or simply an exploration of the more decadent side of London of the 70s, with an unsolved murder thrown in as an intriguing diversion?” But on a deeper level, Blow Up can also be understood as a thoughtful meditation on an ancient paradox.
The film stars a young David Hemmings as a fashion photographer with ambitions to take his work to a higher level beyond fashion shoots, his bread and butter work. After a frustrating morning shoot with some beautiful but cerebrally challenged fashion models, he goes for a drive in his Mercedes convertible and finds himself at a London park. Taking a camera along he starts photographing different parts of the park. The soundtrack is memorable during these scenes for the sound of strong winds coursing through the leaves of the trees. As he starts to leave, a lovely young woman played by Vanessa Redgrave confronts him and demands to know how he can have the right to photograph people without permission. Hemmings replies dryly that it is a public place and no permission is required. The woman turns away, clearly angry and concerned. But this is not the last Hemmings will see of her.
Later Hemmings develops the film from the park and upon examination of the proofs notices a curious detail in one image. In order to examine the detail he applies a series of enlargements to the image (thus the title of the film). At the maximum enlargement he finally sees clearly what had intrigued him: a hand holding a gun just visible emerging from the shrubbery. Intrigued, he rushes back to the park where it is now past nightfall and in the direction the gun was pointing he finds a corpse partly hidden by shrubs. Realizing he has inadvertently photographed a murder that the young woman was somehow involved with, he rushes back to his studio and makes more prints of the hand holding the gun. Unsure about what to do, he becomes distracted by some teeny bopper fans who turn up in his studio asking to be photographed. And then, not surprisingly, Vanessa Redgrave also turns up and asks for the negatives from the park and all of the prints. As part of her come-on she offers to pose topless but Hemmings refuses to give up the negatives. She leaves the studio and so does Hemmings, to visit an antiques shop. When he returns, he finds that his studio has been ransacked and the negatives stolen, along with all of his blow-ups, save for one that had fallen out of sight.
Hemmings rushes back to the park only to find that the corpse is also gone. This introduces the central dilemma posed by the film’s storyline: without the photographic evidence, was there really a murder that left a corpse in the park or was it a figment of the photographer’s imagination? No answer is provided by the film. Film critics and scholars have debated this question without reaching consensus. What was Antonioni’s intent with this film? On one level the plot seems to center around an unsolved murder that may or may not have occurred. The confusion persists if the film is only analyzed at this level.
The confusion is amplified by the seemingly cryptic ending of the film. Dazed and confused, the photographer wanders about another park and comes to a tennis court. As he watches, the mime troupe from the opening scene arrives and storms onto the court to engage in a game of invisible tennis, without rackets or balls. As Hemmings watches, very slowly the unmistakable sounds of a tennis ball being struck by a racket and bouncing off of the court become increasingly audible on the soundtrack. The sound gets louder as Hemming’s head turns from left to right and back again, following the (imaginary?) ball. Finally, as the photographer walks away across a lawn of green grass, his image dissolves against the background. This is how the film ends.
In fact, the final scene, which appears at first to be completely unrelated to the rest of the story and utterly cryptic, is key to understanding what Blow Up is really about. What it is manifestly not about is an unresolved murder – if it had been the screenplay would have pursued the murder and the role that the mysterious woman played in it. (Was Redgrave a seductress hired to lure the victim to his death?). The murder is a handy plot device to drape a larger narrative over. Antonioni did something similar in L’Aventura, leaving a mysterious disappearance unexplained at the film’s end. But if Blow Up is considered from a different perspective, Antonioni’s meaning comes into sharp focus. For Blow Up is, at a deeper level, a long and thoughtfully constructed meditation on the illusive boundaries between reality and illusion. As the story of the murder and disappearance of the evidence unfolds, reality (the murder) crosses over into the realm of unbelief – did the murder even occur if there is no body and no evidence? It may have all been just an illusion after all. Viewed in this way, the final mime scene is not at all cryptic: if reality can become illusion, then the mimes show us that illusion can also become reality: it is a reversible process. Antonioni’s Blow Up is telling us that reality and illusion are often interchangeable, that the one can become the other in inexplicable ways. As if to put one final nudge into our ribs, the images of the photographer disappearing against the grassy lawn (the result of a photographic blending effect created in post-production) are a reminder that the entire film story that has so engrossed us for an hour and a half is also just an illusion, a complex play of color, light, and shadow across a two-dimensional screen. Such is the nature of cinema.