Continuing my trip through Cannes history, today I’m focusing on one of the most celebrated works of Italian master Michelangelo Antonioni, who became an international sensation partly thanks to the booing and heckling he endured at the Cannes premiere of his masterpiece L’avventura in 1960. In the years after that notorious incident, he improbably became a festival darling, a status cemented by the 1967 Grand Prix win for his English-language feature debut, Blow-Up. Inspired by the short story Las babas del diablo by Argentine writer Julio Cortázar (who makes an appearance in the film as a homeless man photographed by the protagonist) and by the “Black Trinity” of fashion photographers that comprised David Bailey, Brian Duffy, and Terence Donovan, this hauntingly cerebral portrait of swinging sixties London stars David Hemmings as a photographer who realizes he has unwittingly captured a murder on film while shooting in a desolate park.
Before Hemmings was cast, Antonioni cycled through several options for the lead: Sean Connery, who turned the role down after Antonioni refused to show him the full script; David Bailey himself, who also said no; and Terence Stamp, who was replaced two weeks before shooting after the director saw Hemmings on stage in Hampstead in a production of Dylan Thomas’s Adventures in the Skin Trade. Among the other key talents showcased in the film are two iconic music acts: jazz pianist Herbie Hancock, making his film-scoring debut, and the Yardbirds, led at the time by Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck. Due to the film’s sexually explicit content, MGM, a member of the MPAA, set up a dummy company called Premier Productions to avoid creating a conflict with the Production Code. Blow-Up’s success at the box office served as a nail in the Code’s coffin, hastening its ultimate replacement in 1968 with the rating system.
Antonioni’s compatriot Alessandro Blasetti led that year’s Cannes jury, which included such luminaries as Miklós Jancsó, Claude Lelouch, Vincente Minnelli, Ousmane Sembène, and Shirley MacLaine. The festival, which was celebrating its twentieth anniversary, opened with Robert Hossein’s I Killed Rasputin and closed with Jean-Jacques Manigot’s Batouk, and among the notable competition films were Robert Bresson’s Mouchette, Volker Schlöndorff’s A Degree of Murder, Bo Widerberg’s Elvira Madigan, Francis Ford Coppola’s You’re a Big Boy Now (the only U.S. film in competition), and two films that shared the distinction of being Blow-Up’s runners-up: Grand Prix Spécial du Jury winners I Even Met Happy Gypsies, by Aleksander Petrović, and Accident, by Joseph Losey. In addition to these stellar titles, the festival lineup was notable for its original inclusion of a film that never ended up playing: Andy Warhol’s Chelsea Girls, which was invited to screen—with Warhol, codirector Paul Morrisey, and stars Nico, Eric Emerson, and Susan Bottomly in attendance—after festival director Louis Marquerelle read the rave reviews it had already received. Marquerelle got cold feet over a scene of male nudity and some of the film’s explicit language and ended up canceling the screening. Then Warhol flew from Cannes to London, where John Lennon and Paul McCartney helped finance underground screenings that led to Chelsea Girls becoming an instant hit.