For this review, I’m prepared to fight above my weight class, and try to deal with a classic art film which has appeared on every serious movie critic’s Best Films of All Time list for over 40 years: Blow Up.
This 1966 drama, like its self-acknowledged genius director Michelangelo Antonioni, has gained a status among film buffs that may make the casual viewer of movies as entertainment, like myself, hesitate. There is no need; Blow Up is entertaining, and its ideas accessible, even if some of its layers of symbolism are to be attempted only by the experienced mountaineer.
The story is, more or less, a murder mystery, but the mystery plot is only a framework for the real theme of the movie, which is the contrast between reality and illusion, real and fake, and how the distinctions between the two can become blurred and even indistinguishable.
David Hemming plays a London fashion photographer named Thomas. He is young, rich, and stylish, and his work is in tremendous demand. Women throw themselves at him, and publishers compete to print his work. Beyond that, we know very little at the outset about the character, whose nature is gradually revealed to us as self-indulgent, jaded, vain, and rather cold and indifferent toward other people.
The film follows Thomas through the course of a 24-hour period. It begins – and also ends – with the appearance of a car full of boisterous young people, some of them in the makeup of mimes, driving through the streets of a poor neighbourhood, cheering and waving as though celebrating. Here we find Thomas, who is visiting a shelter for the indigent, which he has been photographing for a display of his work, although he is clearly out of place in such an impoverished area. The actions of the mimes, pretending the presence of imaginary objects, establishes the movie’s theme of reality and illusion in a lighthearted way.
Thomas returns to his home and studio for a scheduled photographic session with a fashion model, played by 60s super-model Veruschka. Frankly, the scene that follows will be difficult for the present-day viewer to take seriously. It will inevitably remind most people of Austen Powers, since it is almost certainly this scene which Mike Meyers is parodying in his caricature of a fashion photographer. In fact, the setting’s resemblance to parodies of the 1960’s, and the dated hair and clothing of the actors, can be a distraction. I’d honestly suggest watching the scene once, enjoying the Austen Powers ridiculousness freely, then rewinding and giving it a second viewing. It is meant to display Thomas’ distinctive and intense approach to photography, the only thing he doesn’t find tedious; and point to the contrast between the real-life model and the idealised appearance Thomas is meant to produce – another reference to the concept of real vs fake. It also familiarises us with another aspect of Thomas’ personality: his rather contemptuous attitude toward women.
From here, Thomas leaves his studio and goes through an apparently aimless series of activities, which all relate somehow to the film’s theme. He visits an artist friend whose abstract paintings are in great demand. When Thomas asks about a painting’s meaning, the artist explains that even he, the artist, only knows what they mean after they have been completed. In addition to being a commentary on meaning and perception, it is a reference to Antonioni, who once made the same comment about his own films, saying he later discovers the meaning in his work “like a detective in a mystery.”
The theme having been set out for us, we approach a key moment in the film. Thomas strolls through a large public park, where he idly takes photographs of the scenery. He sees a man and woman walking together near a stand of trees and shrubbery, and begins to study them as he photographs them from a distance. Their actions are ambiguous: are they being romantic? having an argument? sharing grief? discussing business? Eventually the woman (a young Vanessa Redgrave) notices they are being photographed, goes to Thomas and asks, with some distress, that he give her the film. He puts her off, but on returning he home he finds she has followed him there. She continues to demand the film containing pictures of her with increasing desperation; Thomas tricks her, giving her a different film roll. Intrigued, he develops the pictures from the park and studies them. He sees that the couple he had photographed do not seem to be casually strolling together after all, but show signs of agitation and fear.
This introduces the central mystery plot. Shaken out of his ennui by the puzzle, he blows up the pictures to poster size and examines the couple, trying to determine the reason the young woman is so intent on suppressing the photographs. Seeing the couple in the park turned repeatedly to look at a point in the shrubbery, Thomas magnifies the area, and sees a man standing there, mostly obscured by foliage, a gun in his hand. Still further examination reveals what might be a body lying on the ground nearby.
Shocked by his discovery, Thomas returns to the park, where he finds a corpse hidden in the shrubbery. After trying to consult with a friend about what action he should take, Thomas returns home to find the photographs from the park have been stolen. The question that is suggested is, without evidence, has it really happened? Even a close friend of Thomas’ asks, “Are you sure?” when he describes what he has seen. Uncertainty has already begun to set in.
Thomas determines to investigate further, but first he is distracted by a series of frivolous activities: a visit to a nightclub, then on to a party, where his friend is present but too stoned to be of any help. Back at his apartment, he is met by two young women who hope to model for him, and takes them both to bed – another scene which challenges the modern viewer, as it involves a certain level of contempt and brutality by Thomas toward the two women, something 1966 critics apparently saw as mere youthful high spirits. The indirect message is that constant indulgence in the trivial and meaningless renders Thomas unable to focus on what is significant, even when it is as crucial as a possible murder. At last, the following morning, Thomas brings his camera with him to the park, to obtain pictures of the dead body; but when he arrives, the body has been removed.
Dejected and confused, he wanders through the park, where he once again encounters the car full of youthful revellers which appeared at the beginning of the film. The young people dressed as mimes leave the car and begin a show of playing tennis, with no real racquets or balls; and in what is probably the most famous moment in the film, Thomas finds himself drawn into their imaginary activity as if it were as real as the world around him – and with him, through a playful addition by the director, the movie’s viewers.
The theme of reality and illusion carries on continually throughout the story, sometimes in subtle ways, sometimes in comically obvious ones. At a house party where Thomas encounters one of his models, he remarks, “I thought you were supposed to be in Paris.” She blithely replies, “I am in Paris.” The obvious joke is that she is so intoxicated she feels herself to be in Paris; the secondary message is that her very presence is subjective and unprovable.
An earlier bit of dialogue is even more deliberately surreal, as well as a demonstration of Thomas’ trivial turn of mind. While the young woman from the park is at Thomas’ home, he takes a phone call. He explains to the woman, “My wife on the phone,” then amends, “Not really my wife, we just have some kids.” Then, “Actually, no kids.” He continues, “She’s easy to live with,” and again adds, “No, she isn’t; that’s why I don’t live with her.” Truth and lies are in a complete jumble, with no serious attempt to separate them.
Thomas’ seemingly random activities over the course of the day often seem to be almost purposely nonsensical. He purchases a large propeller from a second-hand shop, explaining that he wants it “because it’s useless.” He joins a concert crowd in fighting to obtain a souvenir piece of broken guitar from one of the musicians, only to throw it away as trash once he is outside the concert hall. It is a fashionable affectation on Thomas’ part. Only when he develops a genuine curiosity about his possible park murder does this vagueness about meaning and purpose become a hurdle for him – one he never manages to overcome. Without taking a strong moral stance, the film clearly points to Thomas’ lifestyle of aimless self-indulgence, and his willingness to produce popular fantasy as part of his profession, as one cause of his lack of clarity about what is real and what is illusion.
The style of filming is distinctive, and is itself a part of the story. Although for much of the movie we feel directly involved in Thomas’ activities, at other times camera angles are used to give a feeling of voyeurism, or a sensation of being watched by an unknown third party. Occasionally we are even allowed to suspect that the third party is the director himself. It is an unexpected and slightly eerie approach.
The soundtrack is also striking, including wonderful classics by Herbie Hancock and the Yardbirds; but what stands out is the lack of music throughout most of the film. For the most part, only “source music” is used – music that is heard only when it would be playing in real life, as when a radio is turned on or a band is playing in the room. Otherwise, there is almost no background music. At times, this gives a feeling of hyper-reality to the action; but in a few instances, such as when Thomas realises he may have witnessed a murder, the lack of typical film mood music is noticeable. The unexpected silence is more effective than any actual soundtrack.
Part of the fun of Blow Up is watching a talented director use every trick at his disposal to enhance his story: the look of the actors; the sound; the background scenery; every camera angle, fade-out, and movement; and discovering new details with each passing scene. Movie lovers who have so far missed seeing Blow Up should find it easy enough to get past the dated images, the unconsciously sexist words and actions, and other remnants of the mid-1960s, and enjoy the movie for what it is: a complicated and fascinating bit of surreal art.
A good follow-up to Blow Up would be another classic commentary on reality versus perception, Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 masterpiece, Rashomon; or, for a more modern take on the concept, David Cronenberg’s 1999 virtual reality thriller, eXistenZ.