A London fashion photographer frolics with young models, then meets the mysterious Jane. He takes a photo in a park. Back in his darkroom as he enlarges it, he sees a suggestion of something in the photo he never noticed while taking it. Has a crime occurred?
NOMINATED for 2 OSCARS: Best Director, Best Screenplay
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With more than thirty years of hindsight, it can be difficult to understand the sensation that Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup caused when it was released in 1966. Contemporary critics compared its importance to Citizen Kane and the early French New Wave. Predictably, there was a backlash and many view the film as a time capsule from the Sixties, only useful as a window to the concerns unique to that period. Now the film’s depiction of Swingin’ Sixties London and the burgeoning sexual revolution seems tame compared to even the most mainstream of today’s movies. Blowup’s enduring power comes not from its depiction of its characters lives but rather what is missing both from their lives and the film itself.
Blowup is often called a “mystery movie” but viewers expecting a plot paralleling an Agatha Christie novel will be sorely disappointed. Thomas (David Hemmings) is a fashion photographer who spends most of his day shooting models. Bored, he leaves the shoot suddenly. He visits his neighbors and goes to an antique shop. He wanders to a nearby park and starts taking some photographs. He sees a couple who appear to be either lovers or in a fight, and follows them continuing to shoot. Eventually, the woman (Vanessa Redgrave) approaches him demanding that he give her the negatives. He refuses, and she follows him back to the studio. Now intrigued by what is on the film, Thomas gives her a different roll of film. After she leaves, he blows up the photos. Suddenly he notices what appear to be a gun and then a body.
At first viewing, Blowup can be an enormously frustrating experience. We are expecting a mystery but get stylish fashion shots for the first half hour of the film. Our “detective” is only half interested in solving the murder, and we are unsure of whether any crime has been committed at all. Certainly, films based on the audience questioning whether what we are seeing is real are common to cinema, but they usually rely on a compelling acting performance with which we can identify. Antonion is uninterested in any of that. He believed that actors were “objects on the carpet” only there to serve the artistic message of the film as an entity of itself. For an audience, we will not be given any of the answers so often provided by dramatic performance.
However, just because Blowup lacks traditional plot elements, it is no less a mystery. Thomas’s neighbor is a modern artist, and the neighbor’s girlfriend looks at the blowups of the possible murder scene she notes the similarities between Thomas’s photographs and her boyfriend’s paintings. Antonioni is suggesting to us that even the most “objective” mediums are subject to interpretation. Art is not all that different from real life. Evidence is dependent upon us providing a narrative. Thus, the film itself becomes the mystery.
Antonioni addresses the spiritual crisis of modern life, as well. The ennui of the characters is obvious despite their seemingly glamorous lives. Emerging sexual freedom is used to mask a longing for genuine human connection. Even when confronted with such a dramatic event as a murder, the characters cannot rouse themselves from their moral stagnation. Society now gives us everything we want but nothing we need.
I rarely discuss final scenes, because generally I believe viewers should discover it for themselves without my input. However, no review of Blowup would be complete without one of the most powerful endings in cinema history. After failing to solve the mystery (or even figure out whether there was a mystery to be solved) Thomas watches mimes as they pretend to play tennis on a court in the park where the murder may have occurred. The camera follows each lob and serve as if an actual tennis game is being played just one where we cannot see the balls and rackets. Finally, the “ball” goes over the fence, and the mimes gesture to Thomas to get it and throw it back to them. He pauses for a moment and then he does. Then he disappears. After losing all the plot elements of the murder mystery, we have now lost our main character. Now we have to go outside and face a world where our biggest struggles are the ones no one else can see.