1966, Italy/United Kingdom
Cast: David Hemmings, Vanessa Redgrave, Sarah Miles, John Castle, Jane Birkin, Gillian Hills, Peter Bowles, Veruschka von Lehndorff, Julian Chagrin, Claude Chagrin.
Director: Michelangelo Antonioni.
Screenplay: Michelangelo Antonioni, Tonino Guerra.
Cinematography: Carlo Di Palma.
Editing: Frank Clarke.
Music: Herbie Hancock.
Availability: Blow-Up (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]
On the surface, Blow-Up is a simple enough film about a fashion photographer popular among London’s hip Soho crowd. David Hemmings stars as the photographer, Thomas. Though successful, his life is directionless and shallow. Similar people, artists who seem to have no meaning or desire for meaning in what they do, surround him. When he’s not earning a living shooting waifs for fashion spreads, he wanders the streets of London in search of art with some sort of meaning. He never finds it, or really, seems to look particularly hard. While wandering through a park snapping candid shots of people, he accidentally photographs a murder. He doesn’t realize this until later, when a frantic woman (Vanessa Redgrave) shows up demanding he turn the film over. This is the plot that serves as the basic description for the film, but anyone who goes in expecting a thriller is going to be either pleasantly surprised or severely disappointed.
Blow-Up paints a stark picture of so-called Swinging London. Whereas it was and still is often portrayed as full of wild abandon, freedom, color, cuteness, daring, and adventure, Michelangelo Antonioni portrays it more as an aftermath. The city is washed out and gray. The hipster denizens (including pop stars Gillian Hills and Jane Birkin, and German model Veruschka) verge on a catatonic state, engaged in the excesses of freedom and youthful rebellion without actually enjoying any of them. They are listless, jaded, and look like their ten days into a two-week heroin binge. Everyone looks tired, disinterested, and glum. Most of them are props. The only ones attempting to muster some energy are the arrogant Thomas and shady Jane. Thomas is not a sympathetic character, but he’s not a total bastard. He’s rude, sometimes condescending, often irritable, but he acts less out of malice than out simply out of boredom. He is at once irked by the shallow world around him and unable or unwilling to detach himself from it.
So he wanders from one party to the next in a state of ennui, drifting in and out of one excess after another (depictions of which got the film in a substantial amount of hot water) until finally this mystery in the park ignites in him a fire that none of London’s decadent nightlife can match. His curiosity sparked by the strange woman’s desperate plea to have the film, Thomas begins scrutinizing the photos in ways he never would have otherwise. What looks at first to be a simple tryst in the park between a young woman and an older man, possibly of an adulterous nature, soon takes on different dimensions when Thomas notices the woman seems unduly preoccupied with something going on in the bushes near them. In the bushes he sees a gunman — or does he? Hard to tell. And in a later photo, is that a body lying near a tree? Impossible to tell, but that’s what it looks like to Thomas and, presumably, to us. He enlarges the photo, then enlarges the enlargements, until what he’s looking at is scarcely more than a series of abstract blobs.
He investigates further and does indeed discover the body of the man with whom he had seen the mysterious woman. But is it a murder or something else? Perhaps he simply died of a heart attack while in the embrace of his young lover, and she fled in fear of a scandal. Who is this guy? We don’t really know. And we won’t know, because Blow-Up delights in the slow assembly of all the pieces of a thriller but never deigns to solve it. Thomas’ interest in the corpse isn’t moral. He doesn’t want to solve the crime, if indeed a crime has been committed. He doesn’t examine the body, comb over the scene, or even phone the police. His motivations are purely artistic. Here, finally, is something that has challenged him. Solving the mystery would actually spoil the fun.
Rather than being about the murder itself, Blow-Up about what it sparks in Thomas and how it calls into question the reality of what we perceive, or how reality is shaped by what we think we perceive, like that joke about ten different eyewitnesses seeing ten different things. All the drugs, the groupies, the sex — nothing matters much to Thomas, but as he tries to decipher what he has photographed in the park, he rediscovers passion. He becomes an artist lost in his art, but the closer he looks, the more abstract things become. Every step he takes toward decoding the images carries the solution further away. Thomas will never understand what he is seeing, because like those around him, he survives at the surface and doesn’t know how to dive deeper even when he wants to.
Antonioni critiques rather savagely the social and political posturing of the era, while also making a film that became an icon of that same era. The mod crowds are into at and expanded consciousness but unable to make that jump to the next level of awareness; a society trapped between two worlds. They’ve managed to throw off the shackles of 1950s repression, but their freedom comes without meaning or direction, leaving them adrift, sitting listlessly and without passion at a Yardbirds concert or simply staring off into nothing a hashish party. The characters are images without meaning. But just as he tears apart the culture around him, Antonioni builds it up again through the very existence of his film, calling for some meaning to be applied to life, and doing so in a way that shocked, puzzled, delighted, and outraged viewers. Blow-Up pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable at the time; not just in the obvious way of onscreen sex and drugs and nudity, but also in the way one tells a story, or refuses to tell it, and how one photographs a film.
Blow-Up is one of those sharply divisive films that is as loved as it is hated. It demands the viewer do a lot of work, and then it refuses to give you any sort of obvious pay-off for what you contribute. The murder will never be solved. Thomas will never come to any sort of revelation about himself. No one will ever step forward and give some well-written soliloquy explaining the film’s meaning. If you’re not prepared for it, the whole thing could be a bit of a let-down. However, the movie’s power is in its ability to linger. Blow-Up has the ability to stick in your mind, to make you think as you are watching it that there is more at work than what you are seeing. Antonioni doesn’t just make you ponder the theme; he makes you part of it. He makes you feel it. The film becomes increasingly haunting and hypnotic the further away from it you get. You become Thomas, only hopefully without the various aspects of his character that make him a bit of a prick at times.
In a sense, Antonioni has made a movie about the movie he is making without it being one of those “film within a film” deals. His final conclusion, if it is indeed a conclusion, is bittersweet. Thomas chases the meaning of the photographs but he never gets there. In the end, everything he has done vanishes. One of the subtlest of Antonioni’s tricks has Thomas catching a glimpse of his mysterious woman outside a club, only to watch her vanish seemingly into thin air. In his review of the film, Roger Ebert remarks on this same scene. “There is an uncanny scene where he sees her standing outside a club, and then she turns and takes a few steps and simply disappears into thin air,” Ebert writes. “We ran the sequence a frame at a time and could not discover the method of her disappearance; presumably she steps into a doorway, but we watched her legs, and they seemed somehow to attach themselves to another body.” Once again, Antonioni has made the viewer into his subject, has us examining his film frame by frame just as Thomas pores over his increasingly impossible-to-read enlargements. Just as the woman disappears, so too does the body, and the photos. And eventually, even Thomas himself vanishes into thin air.
In a film about photography, filmmaking, and the elusive reality of an image, composition is of the utmost importance. It is through these images more than the dialogue (which is sparse and simplistic) and the characters (which are thinly drawn) that Antonioni pulls you into the story — only fitting given the theme of the film. Antonioni was famous for his films’ slow pace, long takes, and expansive stretches of silence. Blow-Up has some beautifully quiet scenes, culminating in the final scene of Thomas, stymied by the disappearance of the girl, the photos, and the body, watches a group of young art students engaged in a pantomime tennis match (once again indulging the notion of images that don’t actually exist). Antonioni and cinematographer Carlo Di Palma paint a vivid landscape that wanders from featureless gray streets to vibrant windswept parks. The city seems almost uninhabited. Though Blow-Up is one of the director’s more kinetic films, you wouldn’t call it a flurry of activity.
Compare this film to the one for which most cult film aficionados know David Hemmings, Dario Argento’s classic giallo Deep Red. The way the story goes, it was his frustration with Blow-Up’s lack of narrative resolution that drove then film critic Dario Argento to launch his own career, and Deep Red was his answer to Blow-Up. The connections between this film and that run much deeper than the simple inclusion of David Hemmings. There’s an artist who witnesses something crucial in a puzzle yet can’t quite decipher what it is he has seen (a motif Argento favors, having used it in his first film, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage). Argento loves to play with perception and give audiences puzzles, but though his imagery is often fantastic and grotesque, he is at his heart a logical man who has to fit all the pieces together and solve the mystery in his films. Putting his film next to Antonioni’s makes for interesting companion pieces. Whatever criticism of Blow-Up might exist, it remains thought-provoking and well-written. The best commentary on it, then, remains Argento’s reaction, which was to go out, hire the same actor, and make his own movie in response.