Just as Stephen King directed us away from the cliched haunted house and made us start to suspect potential evil in benign things like Saint Bernard dogs, the scene of Antonioni’s “crime” is an ordinary public park. However, he (and we, the viewer) infuse it with a chilling, sinister, agoraphobic ambiance. The few Godot-like trees offer no protection from the creepy Something that seems to slowly invade and then hover over this otherwise pastoral setting with each passing, eerily quiet moment.
(Of course, Hitchcok did this too, with his serial killer uncles in Norman Rockwell settings and handsome, harmless Norman Bates. But labouring under the constraints of Hollywood studio demands, he was unable to make a Blowup, with its artsy ambiguity.)
Again: are we simply recalling another baffling murder in broad daylight in a grassy public spot, starring a brownhaired woman scrambling for safety, a murder also devoid of dramatic music, a pat solution and a happy ending?
If the jaded tabloid journalist, Marcello, in Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita ever found success, he would invariably lead the life of Thomas (David Hemmings) in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup. In the hip culture of 1960s London, Thomas is a famous fashion photographer whose disillusionment is reflected in his expressionless, mannequin-like models. His technical directions have no meaning — they only serve as a means to fill the silence. He is constantly surrounded by people — celebrities, groupies, mod scene acquaintances — but is emotionally isolated. He weaves through drug parties and casual sex with the same pervasive mechanical detachment that he shows in his work. Perhaps, his only source of true intimacy comes from his brief meetings with an ex-girlfriend who has since married someone else, and can only offer abbreviated words and exchange enigmatic, knowing glances.
One day, he photographs two lovers rendezvous in a park, the woman sees him, and proceeds to chase after him. Unable to retrieve the film, she turns to look for her lover, who has disappeared. Her name is Jane (Vanessa Redgrave), and she soon finds David’s apartment, attempting to seduce him in order to get the negative. After developing the film, he begins to suspect that he has photographed a murder. Resurrected artistic passion quickly breaks the tedium as he obsessively reconstructs the incident using photographic blowups. Antonioni masterfully taunts the audience with the grainy, obscure black and white prints, hanging from the walls, like Rorschach tests. Is there something in the photographs to prove murder, or is it merely topographic aberration? There is no definitive answer. He returns to the park and does indeed find the body…but there are no obvious signs of foul play. Inevitably, the cause of the man’s death is immaterial. Like many of Antonioni’s films, Blowup is a parable of answered prayers: the idea that the distraction of wealth and fame cannot fill the void of loneliness, nor substitute for a soul’s unrequited passion.
The uncredited star of Blowup is the persistent sound of wind rattling tree branches, ominously signally a storm that never comes. That signature sound is lovingly referenced in dePalma’s tribute to Blowup, Blow Out; but being a 70s Hollywood thriller in the “paranoid style”, Blow Out is a traditional Hitchcockian whodunnit, with clues and chases and a satisfying if cynical finale.
Instead, we (and the anti-hero) make our way, tentatively, through an urban forest of sharp squares and rectangles, some in bold childlike primary colours, which stand in mute witness to… what? It’s as if the shattered stained glass windows of Coventry Cathedral had been salvaged and scattered around the set.
These occasional colour blocks cast what remains of post-War, rationed London into relief. What effect did the Blitz have on Hemming’s character, who would have been a child during the bombings? Does it explain his dead affect and his compulsion to roam about aimlessly from one location to the next?
Are these childlike primary colours, which we see only in brief flashes (avatars of the riotous, retina-burning shades that would overtake Carnaby Street in just one or two years) a clue that the children of the Blitz are about to take over London?
(Hemming’s gait in Blowup is ingenious, btw: somehow his legs drag slightly even when he’s running, as if he’s reluctant to get to where he’s going, for fear of what he’ll see, but can’t stop himself, either.)
Whether there was a murder isn’t the point. The film is about a character mired in ennui and distaste, who is roused by his photographs into something approaching passion. As Thomas moves between his darkroom and the blowups, we recognize the bliss of an artist lost in what behaviorists call the Process; he is not thinking now about money, ambition or his own nasty personality defects, but is lost in his craft. His mind, hands and imagination work in rhythmic sync. He is happy.
Later, all his gains are taken back. (…)
Parts of the film have flip-flopped in meaning. Much was made of the nudity in 1967, but the photographer’s cruelty toward his models was not commented on; today, the sex seems tame, and what makes the audience gasp is the hero’s contempt for women.
And those viewers who happen to be 21st century GenXers won’t find Blowup‘s milieau terribly glamourous or seductive, assuming it was ever meant to be, which I doubt. There’s a condemnatory moralism in Blowup and the likes of La Dolce Vita their admirers like to ignore.
Everyone in Antonioni’s film is shallow and miserable and on the verge of dessication; we know what they don’t: that they will almost all end up overdosed and clapped out or working at a straight job they’d spent their youth mocking.
This London is swinging from the end of a rope.