Blowup (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966)


Vanessa Redgrave (Jane), David Hemmings (Thomas), John Castle (Bill), Jane Birkin (The Blonde). Screenplay by Tonino Guerra and Michelangelo Antonioni. Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni. Rating: 15. Running time: 111 minutes.

‘Something fantastic has happened!’ This is how Blowup‘s protagonist responds to the witnessing of what he believes to be an attempted murder. No wonder Hollywood’s Production Code refused to grant it its seal of approval, then. On its own, this relaxed expression of awe and wonder in the face of such a dark crime would be sufficient to render the film very un-American. Film characters just aren’t supposed to respond like this, and if they do, they absolutely have to at least be punished by law or death.

Yet Blowup allows Hemmings’ obsession with photography to blossom and progress unscathed. Even when it becomes clear what he in fact witnessed – or rather what his camera unknowingly captured – was a murder, alerting the police doesn’t for a second enter his mind. Law enforcement and the traditional exposition of the motives for murder aren’t anywhere in sight. Instead, we have a sexed-up less-senile Peeping Tom going about his photography in swinging London, casually undertaking the odd erotic moment with the models he’s paid to work with, and even toying sexually with the woman whose crime he inadvertently observed.

Blowup is bloody cool, and its soundtrack, story and main character all jolly well know it. Get on board and concede that it’s hip and compelling, or you’ll give me little choice but to call you a liar. I don’t know of Antonioni, at least until now, but all I can see here is a man intent on filming this wholly unconventional story simply because he can, and perhaps also because every great director seems obsessed with the idea of filming a man in love with art at some point their lives, as if they’ve never owned a mirror and need one of a special kind.

But the thing intriguing about Blowup, its style and liberty aside, is the way it plays out like a reversed Rear Window. Where Hitchcock shot a mystery by letting us see everything L. B. Jeffries did, Antonioni cuts the sequences short, us seeing Hemmings look somewhere, or seemingly think something, before making his next move unannounced, and we’re often ten steps behind feeling a huge urge to speed up. This is perhaps the only typical feeling – intrigue – that can be attached to an otherwise stupidly original film. I know Kael hated it, and I need to find out why, but to deny the appeal of its art-house pretensions is impossible. It is, undeniably, unique and appealing filmmaking, and it liberates us through the wild freedom of its main character.

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