Release Date: December 18, 1966
Director: Michelangelo Antonioni
Production Company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Years ago I read Lights Out For the Territory, a series of essays about walking around London by Iain Sinclair. He mention Blowup as a significant London film in that book so I was happy to finally seeing this movie. It does capture “Swinging London” of the mid-60s, and like La Dolce Vita does for Rome, it shows a city in transition. As the protagonist, Thomas (David Hemmings), drives through London in his sportscar, he passes by rows of buildings that don’t look like they’ve been updated since the Edwardian period, and then passes modernists apartment blocks that look like they’ve just been dropped in from outer space.
Unfortunately, this movie is also like La Dolce Vita in that it’s protagonist is completely loathsome, a photographer who is cruel to the models who pose for him, a sexual aggressor, and just all-around unlikable bloke. Michelangelo Antonioni came from Italy to make his first English-language film with the continental flair for celebrating “La Dudebro.” Curiously, this movie, with it’s frank depictions of sexuality and nudity, became a hit in the USA and helped bring about the demise of the Production Code.
The central plot of the movie is about Thomas taking pictures of a couple kissing in the park. The woman (Vanessa Redgrave) pursues Thomas to try to retrieve the film and destroy it, which includes her taking off her top for Thomas (because of course woman do that very thing in a world where the dudebro is hero). Thomas keeps the film, though, and when developing the pictures he notices a man with a gun and an apparently dead body in the bushes. He blows-up his prints repeatedly to find clues in the grainy detail (hence the film’s title).
The film is classified as a mystery or a thriller, but I believe it is neither. The whole photography/blow up/mystery part only happens after an hour of a day-in-a-life of Thomas being a total dick. The mystery of the photos is something that engages him temporarily from the ennui he’s suffering, but even then he allows himself to be distracted twice (first by having sex with two young women and then by attending a druggy party) instead of, you know, calling in the police. The movie is more a meditation on inaction and the perception of reality which unfortunately is built around a total asshole.
As much as I disliked most of the movie, the final scene is actually brilliant. Thomas returns to the park to photograph the dead body (spoiler: it’s gone). Then a troop of pranksters arrive and begin pantomiming playing a game of tennis. The easily-distracted Thomas becomes absorbed in watching the “game” (and to be fair, these are really excellent mimes) and even goes to fetch the “ball” when it flies over the fence. The camera work following the non-existent ball really helps make the viewer sense that a ball is really there. If only the rest of the movie were as weird and whistful as this final scene, I would like it so much more.