BLOW-UP — THE CRITERION COLLECTION
Groupthink doesn't live here, critical thought does.
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Michelangelo Antonioni’s first English language film is an allegorical murder mystery whose abstract parameters delineate a society where images are more believable, and lasting, than reality.
Set during the height of London’s swinging mod '60s era of sexual liberation, drugs, music, and wild fashion, Antonioni takes a self-reflexive inventory of male-dominated British society via David Hemmings’s anti-hero fashion photographer Thomas.
With his bushy head of dirty-blonde hair, convertible Rolls Royce, and hip live-work photography studio, Thomas lives the sexually promiscuous lifestyle of a “rock star” unencumbered by bandmates. Hemmings’s frenetic physicality and bedroom eyes create a compulsively watchable, but unreliable, symbol of youth culture.
Antonioni’s puzzling film is book-ended by a Greek chorus of mimes who ride recklessly around London spilling out of an Army Range Rover, an understated reference to the distant war raging in Vietnam at the time the movie was made. Dressed in whiteface and jester-styled clothing, the mute pranksters look like precursors to the violence-obsessed Droogs in Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange” (made five years later in 1971). And yet, Antonioni’s band of social renegades shares an odd unity of opposites with the British military, whose vehicle they inexplicably possess. Nothing is what it seems, and no one acts responsibly in the picture.
Dressed in rags, Thomas exits a dingy London flophouse where he spent the night surreptitiously photographing homeless men without their consent. He will use the harsh black-and-white photos to add social realist weight (read, credibility) to a coffee table book he is putting the finishing touches on. Thomas is an equal-opportunity exploiter of men, as well as women, though he clearly savors humiliating the latter.
A quick change into his trademark white Levis and barely buttoned blue houndstooth shirt puts Thomas in touch with his arrogant photographer persona. Young “birds” wait outside Thomas’s door, begging for his attention.
Yelling insults at underfed models during a high paying fashion-shoot bores Thomas to the point of instructing the women to close their eyes so he can furtively abandon them. Thomas can’t even muster integrity while applying his craft. He’s a poseur who knows how to use a camera. The fickle elf is on to his next project, scoping out an antique shop he wants to purchase. While there, our narcissistic man-boy skips into a public park where he covertly photographs a middle-aged bloke frolicking with his much younger girlfriend. In spite of his half-hearted efforts to remain undetected, the girlfriend (Vanessa Redgrave) catches Thomas and demands that he hand over the roll of film. Thomas’s coy refusal brings her, unannounced, to his studio to extract the photos through any means available, even if it means smoking pot and having sex with him. No luck.
Upon printing the photos from the park and blowing them up, Thomas discovers a third person, a lone gunman hiding in the bushes. Is that a corpse lying on the ground where the couple once stood? Verifying the presence of a dead body in the park reveals the impotent nature of Thomas’s personality. For all of the virility and intelligence he exudes, here is a man unable to function responsibly. He may pretend to care about the value of life, but Thomas can’t access reality without the filter of his camera or the images it produces. Nothing is real when everything is staged. “Blow-Up” remains Antonioni’s most enigmatic, and yet broadly accessible film because it comments on consumerist culture so transparently.
Not Rated. 111 mins.