Screenplay : Michelangelo Antonioni and Tonino Guerra (inspired by a short story by Julio Cortázar)
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1966
Stars : David Hemmings (Thomas), Vanessa Redgrave (Jane), Sarah Miles (Patricia), John Castle (Bill), Jane Birkin (The Blonde), Gillian Hills (The Brunette), Peter Bowles (Ron)
Michelangelo Antonioni's "Blowup" is an important film of the sixties that has not aged well. It seems to have been made with the intention of exploring the lack of morality and responsibility in "Swinging London" of the mid-sixties, but for better or worse, the culture of the nineties has sunk far below that level, and at this point, the film looks mostly tame.
Inspired by a short story by Julio Cortázar, the film follows a young, self-absorbed, and immature fashion photographer named Thomas (David Hemmings). The film has little or no plot as it documents his daily routines, photographing slender, lithe models, , smoking pot, meeting with his agent about a book deal, and engaging in a mini-orgy with two teenage wanna-be models. In 1966, I'm sure several of these scenes were controversial (especially the orgy), but now that we have movies like "Trainspotting" to supply us with drug paraphernalia and "Basic Instinct" to exploit carnal desires, they just don't have the same punch.
Antonioni also infused the film was a surrealistic touch that underlies the mostly mundane action. This surrealism works in certain portions, but it also results in an irritating sense of vagueness, where actions and motives are never explained. It's not that the screenplay doesn't do a good job of explaining -- it just doesn't even try.
A good portion of the film deals with a series of pictures Thomas takes in a park of two lovers. When one of the lovers, a beautiful woman named Jane (Vanessa Redgrave), sees him taking the pictures, she runs over and demands that he hand over the film. He refuses, and later she comes to his studio and attempts to seduce him. When that doesn't work, she simply steal the pictures, but all to no avail. When Thomas finally develops the roll and begins scrutinizing the shots, he realizes that he inadvertently captured a murder in the distant background.
The wordless sequence where he discovers the murder, then makes a series of blowup images so he can piece together exactly what happened, is a small masterpiece of directing and editing. Without a single word being spoken, Antonioni conveys an acute sense of discovery as he invites us to look over Thomas' shoulder as the murder unfolds. Afterwards, Thomas returns to the park and discovers the body, proving that he was right. The fuzzy, grainy images in the background weren't just his imagination.
So now, questions. Who was the victim? Why was he killed? Who killed him? Was Jane involved? If she was, how so? What was her relation to the victim? What eventually happens to his body?
But none of these questions are ever answered. Not a single one. "Blowup" never wants to answer them, and in this way the film is maddening because it does such a fine job of setting up the mystery. It's almost like a tease.
Perhaps this is part of Antonioni's multi-layered meaning, making a parallel between these unanswered murder-mystery questions, and all the unanswered questions about Thomas' life and the life of the sixties. Antonioni makes a strong statement about society, with Thomas constantly being distracted by the world around him while he attempts to solve the mystery. Whether that be meaningless sex with the two girls (who remain nameless through the film) or trying to convince his stoned and uncaring agent about the murder, Thomas' hip world is "cool," but ultimately destructive. No one cares when a man is murdered -- it's just on to the next drug party. Questions don't need to be answered -- only immediate gratification is of importance.
So, despite its unanswered questions and datedness (especially a terrible score by Herbie Hancock), "Blowup" is still an intriguing film, beautifully photographed in vivid hues by Carlo Di Palma (a frequent collaborator with Woody Allen). It is especially important as a gifted European filmmaker's view of the sixties, and everything that was wrong with it. From the ugly clothes to the ugly hairstyles to the ugly attitudes, "Blowup" captures the era's shortcomings, and materializes them into a frustrating but fascinatingly colorful piece of cinematic art.
©1997 James Kendrick