The 1967 Cannes Grand Prix winner Blowup was prestigious director Michelangelo Antonioni’s first foray into English, thanks to a deal struck with MGM by producer Carlo Ponti, who contracted the director to do three of them: this one, Zabriskie Point, and The Passenger. While this is clearly the best of that trio (though The Passenger has some merit), in the great Antonioni’s career it feels like a tangential experiment more than a fully realized piece of art.
Based on the short story “Las babas del diablo” by Julio Cortázar, Blowup stars David Hemmings as Thomas, a London photographer who spends his days straddling models while he snaps their pictures, doing various drugs, and moving from woman to woman, enjoying the swinging lifestyle commonly practiced during the era. While walking through a London park, he snaps photos of a couple in an embrace, infuriating the woman (Vanessa Redgrave), who arrives at his home to claim the film. Enamored with her, he gives her a different roll; she gives him a fake number.
As he begins to develop the film, he notices a figure in the background of the couple – a man who could be holding a pistol. Nearby, in another take, Thomas believes he sees a body on the ground, likely the victim of a murder he accidentally caught on film. Unsure of himself, Thomas enlarges the photos multiple times, slowly finding himself dragged into a brief obsession with this chance occurrence.
Blowup has been heralded as one of the most important films about the 1960s swinging London lifestyle, serving as a relatively clear model of the people who defined this time and place. The film has multiple cameos of models and actors, most memorably model Veruschka von Lehndorff playing herself. Antonioni’s staging, along with cinematographer Carlo Di Palma’s beautiful framing and vivid imagery, breathe life into a film that otherwise might feel cold and disconnected. Di Palma’s use of distant focus on characters obscured by near focus barriers create a peephole-style experience that makes the audience clear spectators to a secret world that may or may not be a desirable endgame.
Antonioni’s dedication to realism is clear throughout most of the film; the score, from Herbie Hancock, is delivered through audio digesis (until the end) – music is never heard unless a record is played within the film or a band is playing. There is no music bed; there is no soundtrack that changes timbre to alert the audience when things are about to change on screen. And yet, Thomas’ lack of perspective about the world he lives in and his devil-may-care attitude turns his day-to-day life into a neverending dream sequence, verging on a nightmarish cycle of nihilism.
And that’s likely why Thomas attaches himself to this so-called mystery. He finds something that offers him a brief escape. Hemmings spends a good 75% of the film expressionless – his dead eyes give away his disdain for the life he has chosen (or has chosen him), so the moment he gets a chance to remove himself, he takes it. Unfortunately, while he finds himself captivated by this new development, he has no one to join him on the ride. He tries to tell his agent, who simply wants him to relax and get high. He approaches Veruschka, who was supposed to be in Paris, and she answers, “I am in Paris.” He begins to reconsider his lot in life, if only for a moment. That being said, he never calls the police, never makes an attempt to contact authorities, even after he finds the body and discovers his negatives have almost all been stolen. He simply enlarges the photos until they become so pixelated that the subjects can barely be seen, allowing him to make his own assumptions about things he himself actually created.
So Thomas finds himself at a Yarbirds show, all but a select few staring blankly at the musicians on stage until guitarist Jeff Beck gets frustrated with the speakers, smashes his guitar, and throws the neck into the crowd. Thomas grabs the neck and runs out of the club, only to throw the neck on the sidewalk. A pedestrian picks it up, only to redeposit it on the ground. In the right context, your possessions, your life choices feel like the most important things about this planet’s existence. When their purpose is drawn into question, they just end up as more garbage to carry around with you.
Thankfully, Antonioni’s flare for the surreal is still intact, as Blowup refuses to answer any questions it raises, ambiguously fading away rather than tying up loose ends. Blowup begins with an out-of-place group of performers and mimes running and driving around the streets of London for no particular reason. Those mimes eventually return, acting out an intense game of tennis as Thomas watches. The “ball” travels over the fence and Thomas, now fully engulfed in the game, picks it up and returns it to them. Despite his detour into the world of surveillance and espionage, he still remains a part of the game: the great stage play we all put on when we try to be something we’re not. For a brief moment, Thomas felt like he was discovering something that could change his life. But that’s all it was. A brief moment.
And that’s all Blowup is. After a run of films that included L’Avventura, La Notte, and L’Eclisse, Antonioni made an inspired, but meandering look at why changing who you are is a thankless, empty endeavor. Blowup is an interesting film detour, but not much more.
— Joshua Gaul