Blowup (1966) is Michelangelo Antonioni’s first English language feature and is arguably his most famous film. Inspired by Julio Cortazar’s 1959 short story, Las Babas del Diablo and set firmly in the Swinging Sixties, it centres around the day in the life of a fashion photographer, who, as he takes photographs in a otherwise peaceful park, accidentally captures what he believes is a murder, which he slowly pieces together as he makes ever increasing enlargements of the stills.
However there is far more to Blowup than this. Blowup is primarily about perception and illusion, partly a murder mystery and partly a look at the hedonism of London at a time when the culture was exploding.
In 1966, music, fashion, film and photography were all part of a broiling art scene, and London was its beating heart. The figureheads of this time indulged in every sensory experience and were themselves indulged. One of these figures was the fashion photographer David Bailey. Bailey, along with photographers Terence Donovan and Brian Duffy, had risen to achieve celebrity status, and Bailey in particular had quite a reputation proceeding him for being difficult and arrogant. The similarities between Bailey and the protagonist in Blowup were no accident, however, as Bailey himself was once approached for the part.
These two Italian producers came up to see me at the Vogue studios and said, “Would you like to make a film?”…I thought they wanted me to direct so I said, “Sure.” You know, I was arrogant: If they’d asked me to remake Citizen Kane, I’d have said, “Why not?” Anyway, during the conversation—with their bad English and my no Italian—they started talking about the way I dress. I thought, “Just a minute, what’s the way I dress got to do with making a movie?” But they were asking me if I’d be in the movie. Of course I said, “No.”
The photographer in Blowup, Thomas, played with an aloof detachment by David Hemmings, is a reflection of his times then. He goes about his day in a state of constant impulsivity, seemingly without direction or regard for his actions or their consequence. He is young, handsome, successful and rich, but despite his opulent lifestyle, he struggles to find a value in his existence. For instance, the prize of a piece of Jeff Beck’s broken guitar that he manages to grab from a frenzied crowd is discarded casually outside the venue when, out of context, it ceases to have any meaning.
Blowup strove to not only highlight the culture of Swinging London by making Thomas into Bailey in all but name, but also included incidental music from Herbie Hancock and in one scene a live performance from The Yardbirds, as well as featuring cameos from some of London’s leading actors and models. However, Blowup‘s spotlight looked upon Swinging London with a cooly objective eye. This was not so much a celebration of the scene, as many people would think, but a critical examination, and asks what the point of it all is. No-one seems to know where they are or what they are supposed to be doing, and it is with this realisation that we really start to see the over-riding theme of Blowup.
Blowup wasn’t simply a murder mystery or a slightly cynical look at London’s Swinging scene. It’s central theme is of perception of reality, and it uses the setting and the narrative to underscore this. We open on a group of mimes, who set up the sense of unreality by shouting and screaming at the top of their voices. When we are then introduced to Thomas he is exiting a doss house, and, at first glance, he appears to be like all the other homeless men he walks out with. Only he makes his way to a convertible Rolls Royce, and we realise that he is not all he appears to be. With this illustrated so emphatically stated from the outset, the theme of the illusion of perception is planted into our minds early on and continues throughout. Is there really a murder? Does Thomas really see a body in the blow ups of the stills, or is he imagining it, like his artist friend who only makes sense of his own paintings when he finds something to hold on to? Silence is like another character in the film and your visual sense is put on high alert as you strain to hear. This is used to great effect throughout the film, and at the very end of the film this is reinforced further still when the mimes return and play a mimed game of tennis. When Thomas engages with them and returns their imaginary ball, he begins to hear the sound of it against their rackets. Thomas realises perhaps that this is all an illusion and then, finally, he too disappears.
The photographer in Blowup, who is not a philosopher, wants to see things closer up. But it so happens that, by enlarging too far, the object itself decomposes and disappears.
Blowup‘s influence has found its way into much of our culture. De Palma’s Blow Out uses similar themes, as does Copolla’s The Conversation. Austin Powers is based as much on Thomas as he is on James Bond. The scene where Thomas photographs the real life model Verushka is often referenced, parodied or outright plagiarised.
Blowup‘s brilliance is that it continues to be recognised as the groundbreaking film it is, without becoming a mere curiosity or a fad film of the period. Indeed, with hindsight, the film is possibly better understood now than it ever was, and without it I would never have learnt to roll a coin between my fingers.