Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni
Starring: David Hemmings, Vanessa Redgrave, Sarah Miles
Blow Up, at the time of its release, received marvelous acclaim from critics. The film critic for Playboy magazine even went so far as to say it was “as important and seminal a film as Citizen Kane…perhaps even more so.” Martin Scorcese included Blow Up on his list of “39 Essential Foreign Films for a Young Filmmaker.” Sight & Sound also included Blow Up in its most recent collection of the greatest films of all time. It was nominated for two Academy Awards, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay. Rotten Tomatoes puts Blow Up at 87%, IMDb lists a score of 7.5/10, while Metacritic holds it at 82/100.
Michelangelo Antonioni is one of the most celebrated Italian directors of all time, making him a perfect subject for…
A few months back, I was looking for films to cover for my “May is for Murder” theme. Many lists printed Blow Up as one of its top choices. I then remembered that, back in college, I caught the end of a lecture on the cinema of Michelangelo Antonioni (The memory’s foggy, but I think that I showed up early to a special screening of Singin’ in the Rain…). The lecture mainly focused on Antonioni’s film L’Aventura, but took pains to show how Blow Up utterly upended the mystery genre. I decided that, way too many years later, I’d finally witness this upheaval for myself.
In the mod culture of 1960s London, a photographer named Thomas frivolously floats from gig to gig, vexing everyone from friends to colleagues. On a whim, he ditches a job and begins stalking a couple at a nearby park, photographing intimate moments as well as an argument.
The woman of the couple, Jane, sees Thomas and demands he give her the film. He refuses, then goes back to his shoot. Later that day, Jane enters Thomas’ studio, again asking for the film. Thomas gives her a fake roll and sends her away. Curious about Jane’s insistence, Thomas blows up one of the photos and sees a figure with a gun in the bushes.
The next morning, Thomas looks at the photograph again and sees a new blurred spot that looks like a possible dead body. Concerned, he returns to the park where he took the photo, but is startled by nearby movement. Upon returning to his studio, he finds that his equipment has been ransacked and his film has been stolen.
As the days and nights pass, Thomas is unable to locate Jane, and, after revisiting the park once again, sees that there is no corpse there. No longer sure of anything, Thomas wanders towards the tennis courts where he sees a troupe of mimes pretending to play the sport. Here, Thomas has a reckoning: Nothing that he has ever done has been of importance. He is not engaging with life, merely pretending to. He somberly walks off as the mimes play on.
I found this movie to be an exercise in wasted potential. However, I stipulate that the film adeptly uses irony, with its greatest instance being its advertising. Blow Up purports itself to be a mystery thriller, but I found my heart rate slow and my intrigue wane over the course of this movie.
The inciting, titular incident–the photographer blowing up the size of the evidence–occurs halfway into the films 111 minute runtime. Until then, the audience follows Thomas–a selfish, sleazy, entitled artist of the worst kind–across London on pointless fascinations and errands. These include luring two teenagers into a sexual encounter with promises of a modeling career, purchasing an old-fashioned plane propeller, and berating his coworkers for their bland appearance.
While the mystery sparks momentary interest and Vanessa Redgrave livens proceedings with her presence, tedium quickly returns once Thomas begins investigating the photographic evidence. An average viewer will easily figure out the likely solution, then scream in frustration as Thomas becomes repeatedly distracted by chasing fleeting, empty experiences.
Were I a murderer in the world of Blow Up, I’d feel no worry regarding the crime scene because Thomas, the only witness, takes THREE DAYS to actually return to match the photo to the location.
The only reason I got to the end of Blow Up (meaning that A Streetcar Named Desire is still worse in my book) is because I quickly gleaned that the film is neither a mystery nor a thriller. It’s a character study. Even on that front, however, Blow Up uses multiple scenes to cover the same ground. Thomas is not someone I want to follow; he’s a literal Peeping Tom who’s given too much power and validation. There’s no substance to him and his internal motor is obvious after five minutes with him.
In my opinion, Blow Up is such a failure on every level that saying it “turned the mystery genre on its head” is as asinine as someone who flips a chess board over then claims that they made a significant move: technically true, but by doing so, they’ve ruined everyone’s experience.
I don’t want to discourage people from watching artistic cinema like Blow Up. With movies like this, however, the execution is key. Blow Up has grand ambitions, taking aim at vapid materialism, swinging ’60s London culture, and the potential for artists to use their medium to invade another’s privacy. These fascinating ideas, though, are explored haphazardly, forgotten entirely, or repeated circuitously–all captured within languid pretension, the worst instinct of many Italian directors. I’d almost liken it to watching an Olympic diver attempt a difficult combination of moves, putting their max possible score at ten–only to then belly flop.
For all my vitriol regarding Blow Up, I cannot write it off entirely. I have a friend who considers it one of his favorite movies, and he was deeply troubled when I told him my opinion. I’ve been in his position, defending movies I like from haters (I fielded some passionate comments regarding my Malcolm X review). This friend has given me invaluable writing advice in the past and has recommended excellent movies for me to watch. Perhaps I’ve ignorantly missed the mark here, and he sees something in it that I didn’t.
Watch Blow Up at your own risk, then heartily disagree with me (or commiserate with me). Either way, I look forward to readers’ input.