Blowup (1966): United Kingdom/Italy/United States – directed by Michelangelo Antonioni
Not rated by the MPAA – contains sexual content, some nudity, mature themes, drug use
Blowup is a very interesting film, and, for some, a very infuriating film. But if a viewer is aware, going in, that director Michelangelo Antonioni intends to undermine the audience in unexpected ways they may be a little wiser and a little more appreciative of the film.
Blowup is split into two sections. The first hour drags a little as it sets up the mod world of 1960’s London and the main character. Whether he is a protagonist or an antagonist it is hard to tell; he is incredibly narcissistic and has no qualms verbally and emotionally abusing those around him. His name is Thomas (David Hemmings) and he is an esteemed photographer. Women from all around clamour for him, begging him to take their picture. Some offer sexual favors, which he accepts in the manner of a hedonist mired in worthless actions and behaviors.
He is working on a book that contrasts the rough, working lives of factory workers with the beauty and elegance of London’s fashion elite. He has a great love of beauty, and argues that objects don’t necessarily have to have meaning; it is fine if they are merely beautiful. As a result he buys an eight-foot airplane propeller for his studio.
The women come and go, but he has little time for them. He is a free spirit, wandering the streets as he pleases. He leaves one photoshoot with five beautiful young models standing in awkward poses with their eyes closed. He shuts the door behind him and takes off for the park with his camera. He stumbles upon a couple there, a younger woman and an older man. He photographs them laughing and walking along, holding hands and occasionally kissing. She notices him and approaches, offering anything for the film in his camera. He says she’ll get her prints when they are ready, but he needs them first. She doesn’t care about the prints, only what might be captured on them.
She follows him back to his studio, going so far as to offer herself to him for the negatives. Her name is Jane (Vanessa Redgrave), he soon discovers, and there is something troubling her about the pictures. But he sees beauty in her, too, and wants to shoot her some more. Then they are interrupted, and she leaves him and the movie for good. He proceeds to print the negatives and discovers something strange. At this point the film begins to lack any semblance to the first hour, eventually digressing into disjointed confusion. Spoilers may follow. In one of his shots he notices a person lurking in the bushes near the couple in the park. The person appears to be holding a gun. Later, another shot appears to show a body lying near a tree. He is sure he witnessed a murder.
He investigates, and indeed finds a body. But then things start disappearing. Crowds disappear, dialogue disappears, the body disappears, a tennis ball disappears, then he disappears. This section is where the film is truly interesting. The first hour is a bit tedious and could have been adequately told in a little less time, but it is a great setup for the grand finale.
As the end draws near, things make less and less sense. At a concert there are only two people moving, dancing to the music while everyone else stands still as zombies. A guitar is thrown into their midst and they react as zombies would to a gutted torso being tossed at them. Thomas escapes with the prize only to discard it a moment later. At an all-night drug party Thomas gets involved with narcotics and wakes up to find everyone missing. There is no one around, until he runs into a gang of mimes at a park at the film’s conclusion.
Blowup is about a lot of things, and patient viewers might have a fun time discussing and interpreting the film. Antonioni includes an interesting portrayal of the mod scene, listless young people involved in the pursuit of happiness, or something; they don’t know what it is. Their lives are empty. Thomas only has his photography to truly keep him company, and at the point when he is most engrossed in its mysteries it lets him down.
Most of all, I think Blowup is about unfulfillment. There is a constant theme of lack of satisfaction, primarily exhibited by Thomas. At an opening photo shoot with the model Verushka, he dances and plays with her, using his camera to make violent love to her. He then suddenly stops, leaving her unfulfilled, lying on the floor lusting for more. Later on, with Jane, he comes close to having his way with her, but an interruption leaves him unfulfilled. Then, in the middle of a brilliant sequence as he analyzes and blows up the film, he he interrupted by two young hopeful models. They engage in a threesome (famous for having Britain’s first onscreen pubic hair) but then he immediately switches his focus back to the images. He may have finished coitus, but he is not satisfied.
In the same way, the film ends in a manner unsatisfactory to most viewers. This is a murder mystery, after all, with a corpse, and someone out there must have committed the crime. But then the corpse disappears, the crime dissolves, and our intrepid detective becomes lost in a strange purgatory before disappearing himself. There is no climax to the film, no fulfillment to be had as there is from a regular mystery story.
Blowup is about many things, and I have just chosen one theme that stood out in my mind while watching it again. Other, wiser people have analyzed it more thoroughly, I am sure. I enjoy the film, I enjoy its lazy approach, the way the camera lingers on people walking, staying long after most other films cut away. I love how it dissolves into an alternate reality, one where even the words spoken lose meaning and intensity. But Blowup will not be for everyone, especially those who prefer films to be open and shut, like an episode of “Law and Order.” Blowup will provide interested and patient audiences some food for thought, but it is definitely not a movie to be experienced languidly.