Blow-Up (AKA Blow Up)
Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni
#448 of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die
IMDB users say 7.6/10; I say 9/10
When I was first exposed to the films of Antonioni, I thought he made boring films about boredom. Now I think he makes interesting and beautiful films about boredom and a whole lot more. While Blow-Up can hardly be called entertaining, it is a sometimes frustrating but intellectually stimulating and visually exciting examination of an artist’s unsuccessful struggle to find meaning within the distractions of an empty but swinging London. Although it is impossible to spoil the unresolved mystery the film is built around, I will get deep into the story in order to explore its themes. I would recommend not reading this review until you have watched the movie.
The film begins with a group of merry-makers cavorting through the streets of swinging London collecting money. These folks are among the most animated people in the entire film. We then segue to a shot of a group of men leaving a homeless shelter. We follow one of the men until he loses sight of the others and gets into his dirty Rolls Royce convertible, thus establishing our anti-hero (David Hemmings) as your basic super-cool fraud. He is not named in the film but is called Thomas in the credits so I will call him that here.
He proceeds to drive said car through the strangely empty streets of the city until he arrives at his studio. We soon find out that Thomas has been photographing the men at the shelter, making him also a kind of voyeur and exploiter. He is very macho and apparently irresistible to women. When he begins photographing fashion models at his studio, we learn about the glee with which he keeps women waiting. The famous scene of Thomas shooting the supermodel Verushka reads like a sex scene with Thomas tiring of the woman immediately after the climax. He goes on to berate a whole group of zombie-like models until he gets what he wants.
While he leaves his models standing around with their eyes closed, he visits the apartment of a painter friend. The painter says that his abstract compositions have no meaning when he paints them but reveal themselves later. This also applies to Thomas’s photographs of the park, as we will see. Thomas then heads for an antique store he is considering buying. He hunts for jewels among the junk and winds up buying a propeller on impulse with no particular use in mind. He later asks his agent to follow up with the owner so that he can buy the shop before anyone else does.
Thomas: It’s not my fault if there’s no peace.
From there, Thomas heads to the park and starts aimlessly taking pictures of pigeons. He starts to focus on a couple he sees embracing there. The woman (Vanessa Redgrave – “Jane” in the credits) asks him to stop and demands the negatives. He refuses her. We soon find out he is planning to use them in an upcoming book, along with photos of naked men showering at the homeless shelter and other gritty images of marginalized Londoners.
A very nervous and vulnerable Jane shows up at Thomas’s studio later and pleads for the negatives. He toys with her, poses her as a model, and instructs her on how to smoke and listen to music. She takes off her shirt, offering herself to him and he gives her a blank roll of film. They then apparently make love. She gives him what she says is her phone number.
After Jane leaves, we see Thomas perform the most concentrated activity he does in the film. Several minutes are spent developing the images he has taken in the park. He spies Jane looking at something in the trees and enlarges the area she seems to be watching until he finds a gun in the shadows. His concentration is broken by the arrival of two young would-be models who have been pestering him throughout the day. He welcomes the distraction and dallies with them in a romp that begins in what looks a little like a rape. The girls soon get into the fun. After their three-way tryst, Thomas sends the girls on their way and returns to his photographs. He discovers what seems to be a body under a tree.
Thomas goes back to the painter’s apartment, apparently to share his discovery, and finds the painter making love with his girlfriend or wife Patricia (Sarah Miles). She sees Thomas and seemingly tries to give him some message. Thomas goes back to the studio and Patricia soon follows. Thomas tells Patricia about his discovery that someone has been killed in the park. Patricia asks if Thomas has gone to the police but Thomas ignores that question. He shows Patricia the greatly blown-up image that he says shows the body. She remarks that it looks like one of her partner’s abstract paintings. Enlarging the photos has both revealed and removed information from the images. Patricia reaches out to Thomas for help with a problem but then thinks better of telling him what it is.
Thomas goes to the park alone and sees the corpse. When he returns to the apartment, his cameras, negatives, rolls of films, and prints of the park photos are all gone.
He goes out to search for his publisher to get him to go with him to look at the body. He sees Jane standing at a store window briefly but when he goes to confront her she has disappeared. He goes to a club and stands with a zombie-like crowd who are absently watching the Yardbirds perform. The crowd becomes animated when they start to fight over the neck of the guitarist’s smashed guitar. Thomas manages to “win” this treasure. When he leaves the club he discards it in the street. It has no meaning for him now that he has gone; he only wanted to get it away from the others, like the antique shop earlier.
Finally, Thomas arrives at the party his publisher is attending. He tries to convey his urgent need to have the publisher confirm his sighting of the body but the guy is stoned out of his mind. Thomas, defeated, goes into the back room with the publisher for some diversion. At this point, I began to feel sorry for Thomas. He seemed so utterly alone in spite of his many acquaintances.
He wakes up in the morning and goes to the park by himself but the body is gone. There is no evidence except his own memory of the shooting he saw in the photographs.
The film ends with the return of the merry-makers who proceed to mime a tennis match on one of the courts. Thomas looks on skeptically but when the “ball” goes over the fence he runs off to retrieve it. We hear the sounds of rackets hitting the ball with Thomas’s eyes following the action as the match becomes real for him. At last he stoops to pick up his camera and dissolves into air leaving only the green grass behind.
We are left with more questions. Is the character of Thomas a misogynist creep or a tortured artist or both? What happened in the park? Do the distractions of modern life make it impossible to find meaning? Is it valid to abstract reality from second-hand experience? Can we know reality that is not confirmed by a shared group experience? Is Antonioni reminding us that the film, too, is not real when Thomas disappears at the end?
I find all this stuff fascinating so I could watch this again any time. As a murder mystery, however, it stinks.