If you remember the sixties, then you weren’t there, as the saying goes. Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup captures the wild and hallucinatory quality of the decade pretty darn well. It features very interesting directing and a captivating premise, but the endgame really confuses me. I think that’s point, but whether it is or not is difficult to say. One thing’s for sure; this film practically demands a rewatch.
Set in 1960s London, Blowup follows a nameless fashion photographer (reviews call him Thomas, though he is never addressed by name in the film) played by David Hemmings. The photographer seems to lack interest in his crazy and ever-exciting life. Though many would find a lot of enjoyment in the activities he pursues, mainly photographing beautiful models and sleeping with them, his heart doesn’t seem to be in it. One day, he takes a break from mundane fashion photography and takes pictures of a couple in the park. The girl he photographs (Vanessa Redgrave), tries everything in order to get the photographs back, but Hemmings’ character refuses. When he develops them, he notices the girls’ gaze directed at what looks like a murder in progress. He gets wrapped up in the mystery and more importantly how he can solve it using his photos, but things just get stranger from there as he and the audience doubt the occurrence of a murder in the first place.
Though this premise sounds like it could be the work of Hitchcock (Rear Window is almost the same thing), it is very different in style and tone from anything Hitchcock has ever done. The film is not really suspenseful at all and it more of a character study. It’s more about the photographer and his perception of reality than it is about any murder that may or may not have occurred. This doesn’t mean it’s uninteresting however, and there is more than a bit of social commentary as well. The film paints 1960s London with the same emptiness of feeling that The Great Gatsby views 1920s New York. Almost all of the background characters act with complete apathy. The only thing Hemmings’ character seems interested in is whether or not his photographs of the murder are accurate, and the only other character that exhibits any real desire is Vanessa Redgrave’s character with her attempts to get the photographs back. Where the picture falls short is that it doesn’t offer any explanation for this, or what the consequences are. It just shows that the problem is there.
The film is full of great scenes. This is a film where I admire more how it’s made than what it’s saying, because I at least didn’t get it all on this first viewing (that could be entirely my fault, and I suspect it is). Most of the film’s memorable scenes occur in the park where the photographer first takes his pictures. Antonioni shoots the scenes without music, but the rustling of the trees can still be heard. It creates a very dreamlike and surreal effect, which is strange because that’s what it would be like if you were actually there. The point is, it breaks the rules of movies. There’s no soundtrack telling you how to feel, so the audience gets lost in the scene. Antonioni shoots from many different and interesting angles, and the whole scene is slow paced, contributing to the dreamlike feel. Hemmings’ character returns to the park twice, once at night to find the dead body, and again the next day to discover the body has vanished. The park is so detached from the rest of the locations in the film, it offers an escape to the main character, and doesn’t apply by the same rules as the rest of the world.
Or does it? My other favorite scene follows the photographer’s exit from the park. He searches through the dives of London, trying to find his agent who might know what to do about the dead man. He stumbles into a concert where The Yardbirds are playing (which prompted a certain amount of fangirling on my part, but it’s still a good scene). It’s very strange because none of the audience members are into the concert at all; only one couple are dancing, the rest are just standing there staring straight ahead. Jeff Beck goes into guitar smashing mode, and the audience finally shows signs of life when he tosses the neck into the crowd. They all, the photographer included, fight for the neck with their lives. Hemmings’ character comes away with it, but he has no use for it. He tosses it out on the street like a piece of garbage, and a passerby repeats his action. It’s such a weird scene, playing into the apathy most of the movie’s characters feel. They appear to come alive for a few minutes, but they soon wear themselves out with it, concluding it’s not worth the effort.
Blowup is an expertly crafted film, and never having witnessed Antonioni’s style before, I’m amazed at its uniqueness. I’m looking forward to checking out more of his films one of these days. I’m still confused about the overall point of the film, but it offers a lot of food for thought. There’s the overwhelming apathy of the characters, interrupted by short bursts of feeling. The film obviously questions the perception of reality, with the main character seeming pretty unreliable and the physical evidence of the photographs seeming unreliable as well. This is all pretty clear, but the endgame is still eluding me. How do these points relate to each other? Why should we be questioning reality? What is the film saying about the role of art? The good news is, the film is so well made and intriguing that it most definitely won’t be a chore to revisit it.
“I am in Paris.”
Long story short: 3.5/4 stars
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