Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 film Blow-Up has inspired a lot of reverence. The 1959 Julio Cortázar short story that it’s drawn from certainly has its admirers, but it is less widely known or appreciated. Criterion Collection’s new, expanded edition of the movie gives those who are interested an excuse/opportunity to take a fresh look at both the cinematic and literary versions of the story, and to see into the connections (or lack thereof) between the two.
Both film and story are multi-layered, elusive works that invite varied interpretations of their ultimate themes and meanings. Likewise, the associations between them are not altogether straightforward. Many people who know and love Antonioni’s feature have likely never read the story. And some who have taken the time to read it after knowing the movie version possibly came away thinking there are only surface likenesses between the two versions of the tale.
The opening credits of the film state that it was “inspired by” rather than based on the story, and they don’t bother to give a name to the Cortázar work (the Argentinian’s original title was “Las babas del diablo”; “The Devil’s Drool” translated from Spanish). But maybe there’s more in common between the filmmaker’s and writer’s visions than has been previously noted. Let’s explore.
In both movie and story, the main character is a male photographer. In the story he is Roberto Michel, a resident of Paris who primarily works as a translator and practices photography as a hobby. In the film he is Thomas, an in-demand London fashion and art photographer famously played by David Hemmings.
In each case, the photographer happens upon an odd scene involving other people while he’s out strolling with his camera in tow. In the Cortázar work, what Roberto witnesses is a peculiar, possibly disturbing set of interactions between an attractive woman and a nervous teenage boy. The woman appears to be using her feminine wiles to try and induce the kid—who seems both weary of the woman and under her spell—to do something he is hesitant to undertake. Antonioni, with the aid of co-screenwriter Tonino Guerra, wrote this pivotal scene in a way that has Thomas happening upon a man and woman cavorting about in a park in what has the look and feel of an adulterous rendezvous.
In both versions, the photographer becomes fascinated by the scene and starts taking pictures of the people. The woman catches him and angrily confronts him, demanding the film. After refusing the woman’s demand, he later sees more into the incident than he noticed at the time as he views the developed film.
Of course, Antonioni’s movie is about much more than the situation involving the couple in the park and Thomas’s pictures of them. While the woman (portrayed by Vanessa Redgrave) continues to be involved in the plot after that scene, and while Thomas’s photos of her and her man-friend take on deeper significance in later parts of the story, this is only one aspect of the film.
Through Blow-Up—the first English language movie made by the Italian director, and the first of three he created in conjunction with producer Carlo Ponti—the auteur set out to capture a whole place and time: London in the Swinging Sixties. Through the words and deeds of the arrogant and hedonistic Thomas; through the mod outfits worn by characters played by fashion models such as Veruschka and Peggy Moffitt; through the looks and behaviors of those portrayed by actresses Jane Birkin, Gillian Hills, and Sarah Miles; through the glimpses of London streets and artist studios; through a club scene that has The Yardbirds performing; and through a debauchery-filled party scene, Antonioni captures the prevailing looks and moods of the city in the era.
But, Antonioni—being an outsider as an Italian and a notably precise movie director who always sought to put his own stamp on whatever settings he filmed—also created a London in the Swinging Sixties as seen through his singular vision. It’s not all splashy colors and groovy people. At times, the film puts the underbelly of London in the ‘60s on display, such as a scene that shows a group of haggard men coming out of an assistance shelter. Also, there are melancholic moments that reveal the ultimate lack of meaningful connections between people.
Then there’s Thomas: while much of his carrying on appears glamorous and exhilarating, in the end the story points to the existential emptiness at the bottom of a life caught up in always living for the moment and in getting taken along by the social mood of the day. And, for extra measure, there’s also a mysterious crime at hand—one that Thomas’s camera inadvertently captures.
Cortázar’s short story also involves much more than a photographer and some shots he gets of strangers acting oddly. The tale—which is intellectually complex, as is most of the Argentinian’s literary work—is a hallucinatory piece that explores Roberto’s mental state as much as anything else. The narrative shifts around from having Roberto refer to himself in the first and third person at different times. On the surface, that technique might appear to be an exercise in gimmicky literary acrobatics. But perhaps the writer utilized the shifting perspectives to show us just how unbalanced the photographer has become.
There was a third person involved in that scene that Roberto filmed, a grown man sitting nearby in a car, and as Roberto comes to understand what role the man may have been playing in relation to the woman and the boy, he becomes disturbed. Roberto comes to be so morbidly transfixed by his memory of the episode that, some time after the events, he starts seeing visions of the incident while staring at his photos from it and mentally acts out what he wanted to happen between the boy, the woman, and the man.
Yes, the short story is—like Antonioni’s film—about the power a photograph, and visual art in general, can have in showing us things about life that we don’t gather in real time, but it’s also about the corruption of innocence as well as human evil. Keep in mind the name of the story before it got changed to be associated with the film: “The Devil’s Drool.”
Regardless of the extent to which you believe Antonioni’s film in indebted to Cortázar’s story, both works are highly effective, thought provoking works of art that only become more interesting and more stimulating the more times one experiences them. The full text of the short story is included in the new edition of the film, along with the usual assortment of Criterion extras that, in a variety of ways, shed light on Antonioni and Blow-Up.
Brian Greene writes short stories, personal essays, and reviews and articles of/on books, music, and film. His work has appeared in 25+ publications since 2008. His pieces on crime fiction have also been published by Noir Originals, Crime Time, Paperback Parade, The Life Sentence, Stark House Press, and Mulholland Books. Brian lives in Durham, North Carolina.