on 16 March 2006
It seems that Blow-Up has been re-evaluated somewhat in recent years, no longer being hailed as the iconic classic it once was, and instead being criticised for the meandering plot (more of an anti-narrative than anything else) and the somewhat dated depiction of swinging 60's London. This is a real shame, but at the end of the day, it's a film that I still enjoy so really, I don't care!! For me, Blow-Up is a film that holds up to repeated viewing, with each subsequent re-viewing revealing more and more (possible) interpretations of the plot. It's a film that requires the viewer's participation and imagination to elaborate on the ideas that Antonioni suggests through movements, composition, actions and sound, and mostly works for me because of an obsession I have with British 60's culture... so the chance to revel in the colours and locations is fantastic, with the film standing as something of a cultural time capsule as well as a slight (though no less enjoyable) murder mystery.
The basic plot revolves around a feckless and self-infatuated photographer at the heart of the happening 60's scene, with Antonioni sketching a world of no-ties sex-orgies, pot parties, protesting students, shallow scenesters, chic fashionistas, gaudy colours, bizarre camera angles, extended jazz-numbers, waif-like models and the gradual disintegration of the hippie era and the sense of innocence lost (see the director's follow up Zabriskie Point for more). Amongst all of this, he and co-writer Tonino Guerra manage to comment on the urbanisation of most major metropolitan cities moving towards the 1970's (with the newly built concrete housing blocks that our protagonist drives past a number of times during the film now being an all too familiar presence, particularly in areas around London, Manchester and Birmingham). It also taps into the existentialist idea of a character lost in his own abyss, finding little comfort in the scene he has immersed himself in, whilst simultaneously struggling to find something more tangible and worthwhile within the mire of 60's caricatured excess.
More than that however, the film is a great treatise on the notion of perception... for example, is it really that coincidental that our lead character is a photographer, someone who's entire profession revolves around documenting an abstracted view of reality? Throughout the film, Antonioni is playing with the notion of perception and the way we see things, from the opening scene - in which the photographer emerges black-faced from a factory and dressed in grungy overalls to match his work-mates, before he rounds the corner and jumps into his pristine Rolls Royce - right the way to the end, where a group of students act out a tennis match using mime, in which our hero finally realises the difference between what is seen and what is felt.
The point of the film is not "who was murdered?" or "who murdered who?", but rather, did the murder actually take place at all? Can we trust our central character? And, more importantly, can we trust what we are being shown by the director? The major set-piece here is a tranquil moment in which the photographer (brilliantly played by the late, great, David Hemmings!!) innocently snaps a couple enjoying an intimate moment in a secluded park for the closing chapter of his book. When he is spotted by the couple, the woman, who is much younger than the man she is with, approaches and demands to have the negatives returned to her. Our hero refuses and, in moment of confusion, manages to slink away with the snaps still on his camera. Later, the same woman appears at the photographer's studio and attempts to seduce him in an attempt reclaim the negative. Again, playing off the notion of perception, we assume that the woman's urgent desire to reclaim the photographs stems from a possibly illicit affair, however, once Hemmings has developed the negative and printed the shots he sees a curious shape in one of the bushes that almost resembles a face.
What follows is another tense, low-key set-piece in which Hemmings has large scale blow-ups made of each picture and studies them at length. Antonioni forces the audience to study the pictures along with him and, in a moment of unrivalled cinematic subjectivity, the outline of the face and the possible appearance of a gun begins to become clear. In the last picture, the photographer outlines what could be the shape of a collapsed body, but the images are purposely obscured by the pixilation of the blow-up and the harsh contrast of the picture's black and white. When he should be bringing the photographs to the attention of the police, the photographer instead gets roped into a three way sex-game (an important and historical cinematic moment featuring a young Jane Birkin and Gillian Hills, with the first sight of pubic hair ever glimpsed in a mainstream movie) and later, when he should be tailing the woman from the park, he ends up watching a shambolic performance from the Yardbirds (another iconic moment in the film... though it would have made more sense with Antonioni's original choice, The Who).
The appearance and later the disappearance of a body in the park suggests a possible conspiracy, or it perhaps suggests deeper shades to our hero's personality. Was there really a murder, or was the whole film just part of the central characters need for something more tangible than the routine pantomime of 60's overindulgence? The ending seems to suggest some moment of transcendence for the character, with that aforementioned tennis scene between the mimes and that deep silence that makes the moment into something much more memorable and important than it might have initially seemed. Blow-Up is a slow-paced and meandering film that favours atmosphere over narrative momentum, and, as a result, will no doubt alienate a number of potential viewers. That said, if you're the kind of person who enjoyed the mystery elements of films like Coppola's The Conversation, Argento's Deep Red (also featuring Hemmings) and Brian De Palma's Blow-Out (all of which draw heavily on the influence of this) and can look past the dated depiction of 60's London, then Blow-Up offers a lot be enjoyed.