written by Michelangelo Antonioni and Tonino Guerra
from a story by Michelangelo Antonioni
based on the short story Las babas del diablo by Julio Cortázar
directed by Michelangelo Antonioni
A couple of years ago a co-worker and I were talking about all the changes we’d seen in our industry (TV), and the need to look for new opportunities and reinvent ourselves. He mentioned the word “impermanence,” the state of being “in flux” explored by philosophers from Heraclitus to Plato, Nietzsche, and more. Everything is always becoming something else; no man ever steps in the same river twice. After watching Blowup, I couldn’t stop thinking about this.
Blowup is about Thomas (David Hemmings), a young photographer in 1960s London. He’s a self-involved asshole who treats people like shit, drives a Rolls-Royce convertible, takes pictures of beautiful models, and lives a life of excess. At one point we see him at a photo shoot with real model Veruschka, and the whole sequence plays as if he’s penetrating her, riding her with his body and camera until he “climaxes” and plops down on a couch, uninterested in her satisfaction. It’s provocative and risqué scene, and immediately lets us in on the fact that Thomas may be wildly successful, but he’s completely empty inside.
Thomas sees the world through his camera, itself an extension of his hands. It’s almost as if he cannot make sense of life if not through a lens, which paradoxically is incongruous with reality since a picture is just a representation of it. There are inklings of Thomas’ inner dissatisfaction, though: His passion for visual arts is evident in the way he speaks to his agent Ron (Peter Bowles) about the book he’s putting together on homeless men, and mentions his desire to leave the city for good: “It doesn’t do anything for me… I’m fed up with those bloody bitches. I wish I had tons of money. Then I’d be free.” Of course, even this remark is framed by his sexist, petulant, rich-boy privilege.
By now, it’s evident that co-writer/director Michelangelo Antonioni is commenting on the vacuousness of Swinging London. But then he introduces a mystery: Thomas secretly follows and takes pics of a young woman (Vanessa Redgrave) and an older man (Ronan O’Casey) walking and kissing in Maryon Park. The woman, Jane, is upset and demands Thomas give her the film. He refuses. She later visits his studio and tries to seduce him for the pictures, but he tricks her and gives her the wrong roll. After she leaves, Thomas develops the photographs, and what follows is an amazing sequence in which Thomas blows up the images and sees what looks like the figure of a man hiding in the bushes… with a gun in his hand. Did he unexpectedly save the lives of the couple?
Here, Antonioni switches gears, turning Blowup into a suspense flick (it would be the inspiration for other movies years later, most notably 1974’s The Conversation and 1981’s Blow Out). Thomas is briefly sidetracked by two wannabe models, bringing him back to his superficial self. He has a threesome with them, but his mind is fixated on his eerie discovery. The girls leave and he blows up another pic, realizing the older man may have actually been killed while he was talking to Jane. Shit. He goes to the park and, lo and behold, finds the man’s body. But he forgets his camera. Instead of calling the police, like a normal person would, he goes back to his studio to get his gear and photograph the dead man. However, his studio has been ransacked, the prints and negatives taken. All that’s left is a blurry blowup that can’t be used as evidence of anything.
Lost, Thomas confides in his neighbor Patricia (Sarah Miles) – the only person in the film he connects with and possibly loves – what he’s experienced. She asks how the murder happened, and his response is, “I don’t know. I didn’t see.” And it’s true: Thomas has no proof, other than the blurry blowups. Not having an accurate record of the crime – a clear photo – makes Thomas question himself. He only knows a man is dead. Things get weirder from here. He spots Jane in the city, but then she suddenly vanishes. He follows her into a club – maybe – where The Yardbirds are playing to an audience of zombie-faced young men and women (they only come alive when the band’s guitarist, Jeff Beck, breaks his guitar in pieces and throws the neck into the crowd – I guess I would too). He makes his way to a party and tries to convince Ron to come with him to the park and see the body. But Ron is too stoned and can barely understand him. Once again distracted by shallow pleasures, Thomas joins the bash and wakes up the next morning.
The final minutes of the film are particularly difficult to process. Thomas returns to the park once more, camera at the ready. But the body is no longer there. He looks around, confused. Did the police find it? Did someone come back to hide it? Was there really a killer in the bushes? Was Jane complicit? As Thomas walks away, confused, he sees a group of mimes playing an imaginary game of tennis. He approaches them, but interestingly, takes no photographs. Instead, he just… observes. The mimes hit a make-believe ball out of the court, and Thomas participates in the fantasy by picking it up and throwing it back at them. He even smiles slightly, as if in acceptance of this new “reality,” which in itself is also a fantasy. Then Thomas vanishes from the frame. Impermanence.
Antonioni was an existentialist, and most of his films skewed structured plots in favor of a snapshot – a blowup – of a character’s life, along with their discontent and alienation. In Blowup his protagonist is “in flux,” thrust into a journey of self-discovery. The “murder” has briefly shaken Thomas awake from the ennui of his life. What is “real” is ultimately irrelevant. All that matters is his perspective – seen through his camera eye and, as an extension, Antonioni’s – and the narrative he’s constructed (or failed to construct) from it. In the end, Thomas’ willingness to play with an imaginary ball and engage in a different sort of fantasy other than capturing images on film signifies he’s embraced changeability. For fans of traditional whodunits, Blowup is more than likely a frustrating experience.
If there’s a slight misstep in Blowup it is in the fact that Thomas discovers an actual body. I think that the movie would’ve probably gotten even closer to its philosophical preoccupations had it left us with Thomas’ interpretation of the blown-up photographs, and not included such a clear bit of confirmation (some critics think the dead man could be a figment of Thomas’ imagination, but this is nonsense). Yet one cannot discount Antonioni’s skill in mixing thematic concerns with conventional thriller aspects as taut and suspenseful as anything in contemporary cinema. It’s not every day that a movie glues you to your seat… while at the same time making you ponder your place in the universe.
Carlos I. Cuevas