Ranked #144 on 2012 Sight & Sound Critics Poll
Ranked #54 on 2012 Sight & Sound Directors Poll
There are many directors and many films that are extremely highly thought of that I’ve just never gotten around to seeing even though I’ve meant to, and Michelangelo Antonioni is at the top of that director list. I do have to admit to having a certain amount of trepidation because of the rather sharp divide in critical appraisal of his work, especially including Ingmar Bergman’s remark that while Blow-up and La Notte (Italy/France 1961) were masterpieces, nothing else of his work was worth watching.* While L’Avventura (Italy/France 1960) is his most highly acclaimed film, I decided to start with this film because its plot sounded more accessible for me and Il deserto roso (Italy/France 1964) because of its mention in Sidney Lumet’s indispensable Making Movies, where Lumet says that it opened his eyes to the potential of the use of color in film. Il deserto roso will still have to wait for another day, but I finally watched one of them at least.
This film consistently called to mind Peeping Tom (Michael Powell, UK 1960), the incredibly controversial and quite thoughtful film about a demented serial killer who attacks using a camera tripod. Like that film, it is set in ’60s London and steeped in the mod culture of the time and is a controversial examination of the art of filmmaking.
While it has lost some of its steam, it was once a popular statement to make films that were about the supposed dehumanizing or desensitizing effects of film, and Blow-up is probably the most famous example of that trend. However, many of those films feel dated, not just because of the fact that they are advancing the view that film is somehow dangerous in its ability to desensitize viewers and creators but because of the simplistic way in which they examine the issue and resolve the moral dilemmas. Peeping Tom is a standout for its willingness to take on the subject with all of its complications and take a nuanced, deep look at all of the issues. However, Blow-up is a representative of the opposite school of thought: it says, quite clearly, that basing everything on superficial visual qualities, like a photographer does, is dangerous because it leads to a complete loss of humanity. It’s not necessarily a worse position for a film to take, but it is a simpler one.
Antonioni builds his film on a rather odd plot: a photographer takes some pictures then eventually discovers that the pictures have evidence of a murder, but we don’t get anywhere with that mystery. Instead, the film just focuses on following around the photographer as we see how much his life is based simply on a search for beauty above all else. A woman asks him what an airplane propeller he has bought is for and he replies, “Nothing. It’s beautiful.” That’s his personality in a nutshell. Through this obsession with beauty above all else, we see his callous disregard for others through his nearly running over a pedestrian when parking his car, his blackmailing of several women into sex whom he then treated like they were worth less than dirt.
However, where the film stops short of being special is its repetitiveness, which is caused by the simplicity with which it makes its point. We get within 20 minutes that the guy is simply an unfeeling jerk because all he cares about is looks, but we spend another hour getting that beaten through our heads. It’s not poor filmmaking and it shows a commendable focus on the film’s points, but it’s rather dull and leaves the viewer thinking that the film just didn’t have that much to say.
Acting-wise, there’s little to say about the film, because only a couple of actors have anything at all to do. David Hemmings in the lead plays the beauty-obsessed jerk photographer, but he has little emotion of any kind to show throughout. He seems natural enough and doesn’t overplay the characters callousness, but there also isn’t much there for him to do. Vanessa Redgrave, meanwhile, plays a manipulative, duplicitous role as a woman who pretends to be seduced but is in reality using the photographer in the same way he has used others throughout, and is absolutely fantastic in a rather small role. Indeed, a film that is otherwise almost clinical in its detachment from the emotional springs to life every second she is on screen.
Visually, Antonioni and cinematographer Carlo di Palma present a film that is chock full of big, bold colors that emphasize what a surface-based world it is presenting. However, they also present us with a fairly unimaginative look otherwise. The angles, transitions, and lighting are so standard as to be all but unnoticeable, which is a bit odd for a film so about appearances. It’s as though they were just not willing to take the ideas in the plot to their logical visual conclusions, which is a shame.
Overall, this is a good film and one definitely worth watching, but it is far from perfect. It’s a bit repetitive, a bit simplistic, and a bit visually dull. That’s not enough to make it bad, but it’s enough that it isn’t really among the all-time masterpieces. With all due respect to Bergman, Citizen Kane is better.
*I would not necessarily listen to whatever Bergman says. Directors do often have very poor taste in films. Indeed, Bergman himself was a noted critic of Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, USA 1941) and Alfred Hitchcock and fan of Steven Spielberg. It is a very poor critic indeed who is more impressed with Steven Spielberg than with Alfred Hitchcock.