Newspapers and magazines were just beginning to detail the phenomenon known as “Swinging London” when Blowup burst upon the movie world in 1966. The look, the style, the clothes, the music, the mood and just about everything else connected with a “scene” everyone on earth seemed to be talking about was suddenly there, up on the screen, with all the impact and the immediacy of which only the movies are capable. Moreover it was all being offered up in that most attractive of moviemaking forms, the murder-mystery thriller. Commercial success was a foregone conclusion. Still, curiously enough, none of this appeared in the cards at the outset. For Blowup didn’t begin its life as a cannily trendy product of studio filmmaking, but rather as the very personal expression of the imagination of one of European art cinema’s greatest talents, Michelangelo Antonioni.
The creator of L’avventura, La notte, L'eclisse, and Red Desert would hardly have been anyone’s first choice to chronicle the London scene, so devoted was this Italian filmmaker to stark tales of his own country’s alienated intellectuals and decaying upper classes. Yet from the very first shots of Blowup—cutting between a pack of masquerading students on a spree, and a group of tramps leaving an overnight shelter—it’s clear that Antonioni’s cool “outsider’s” eye was just what was needed to tell this story of a “with it” fashion photographer who unwittingly uncovers a murder. Antonioni’s clear-eyed, measured tone perfectly offsets the frenetic pace of the lives his film details.
David Hemmings gives an incredibly vigorous performance as the photographer here (clearly modeled after David Bailey), catching every nuance of this elusive, quicksilver personality. Making his fortune in high fashion shots, the photographer seeks to create art on the side with candid photography (he was among the group of tramps in the film’s opening, having spent the night with them in order to get pictures). But this seemingly simple pastime proves to be complicated when one afternoon in a public park he follows a couple engaged in a romantic tryst.
On the surface it looks rather banal—a man and a woman innocently kissing. But when the woman (Vanessa Redgrave) catches sight of the photographer’s activity she confronts him, demanding the pictures. Playfully, teasingly, he puts her off by giving her a fake roll of film and keeping the real one for himself. It’s only when he develops the film in his studio that he discovers that what he thought was merely an illicit afternoon interlude was really a set-up for a murder.
It is in this central sequence (Chapter 11) that Blowup begins to move into high gear—and the visual scrupulousness of Antonioni’s technique begins to pay off. The situation is reminiscent of Hitchcock’s Rear Window. But where the photographer-hero of that film had his own sight and hearing to guide him, the protagonist of Blowup is working only through the evidence of his photographs. As he assembles and examines them, the truth slowly begins to emerge as a figure with a gun is suddenly observed hiding in the bushes alongside the couple.
It’s a clear case of murder, confirmed when the photographer returns to the park at night and finds the body. But what does the murder mean in a society as “cool” as this one? Antonioni, rather than reach for easy answers, supplies further questions as he follows the photographer through a day and a night, deciphering the photos while at the same time dealing with the distractions of his high-pressure world. We see him romping with a pair of teenage would-be models Jane Birkin and Gillian Hills), manipulating every move of his most important fashion mannequin (Verushka), pausing briefly to relax with the wife of a painter friend (Sarah Miles) only to take off again, losing his way in a London rife with pop music (the group The Yardbirds make an appearance in Chapter 15) and “pot” parties.
Blowup was a film plainly earmarked for maximum enjoyment through repeated viewings, so subtle was its technique in detailing its very visual mystery story. And now through CAV laserdisc that pleasure is increased a hundred-fold. For Blowup in CAV laserdisc is, in fact, Super-Blow-Up. The photographic details the hero uncovers in Chapter 11 can be examined even further through freeze-framing by the home viewer. Moreover, the scene that is the basis of the photographs—Chapter 7—can be dissected in like manner as well.
If you’ve never seen Blowup before, prepare yourself for one of the cinema’s most unique experiences. If you have seen it before, prepare as well for rediscovering—much like the film’s hero—something you only thought you knew.