Michelangelo Antonioni borrowed the idea of a crime discovered by making a photographic enlargement from a short story by the Argentinian writer Julio Cortázar, who according to IMBd makes an uncredited appearance in Blow-Up as a homeless man. The film's cast includes an array of hip and happening actors of the era: David Hemmings, Vanessa Redgrave, Sarah Miles, Jane Birkin, and fashion model Verushka as Verushka the model. Antonioni wanted The Velvet Underground or The Who for the rock band but neither was available. He settled for The Yardbirds in an incarnation that featured guitarists Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page.
Blow-Up is Antonioni's first English-language film. "It is also the only one of his films that can be described as exciting." (Seymour Chatman, Antonioni ). Well, that is all relative, maybe a matter of perspective, as they say. The pace is languid, the place swinging London set to music composed by Herbie Hancock (Herbert Hancock in the credits), très sixties, and it follows as night follows day, n'est-ce pas, often more than faintly ridiculous. But that is not all a bad thing.
Thomas (Hemmings) is a successful fashion photographer who is collaborating with his pal Ron on a grittily realistic book about life in London, with Ron providing captions for Thomas's photos. Returning to his studio after a night at a doss-house surreptitiously taking photos for the book, Thomas encounters a contingent of mimes piled into a jeep careering about the city soliciting donations from those they encounter. Sleepless and rumpled though he is, trousers torn at the knee, he sets straight to work, coaxing Verushka through a balletic sequence of poses that convey eroticism without being all that erotic. Then he brings in a group of models decked out in the ridiculous attire of high fashion and proceeds to harangue and belittle them as he tries for that certain look he needs for the shot. A charitable analysis might put it down to the perfectionism of a talented artist. His character is otherwise opaque.
The plot swings into gear when Thomas spots a woman (Vanessa Redgrave) and man strolling through an otherwise deserted park, holding hands, pausing to embrace. Thomas photographs them from a distance until the woman spots him and charges his way, one hand shielding her face as if to ward off any more photos. She demands that he stop and that he hand over the film. He refuses. Later she shows up at his studio, how she finds it a mystery, and again demands the film. Thomas says he will give it to her but not now. He needs it, he says, without telling her he envisions using some of the park photos as the ending for the book because they will be softer, less violent than the others.
There follows a sequence where Thomas plays a Hancock record that visibly relaxes the woman, leading to what is almost a rapport and intimacy, as she removes her blouse and he his shirt. They are interrupted when a deliveryman shows up with a propeller he purchased that morning at a junk shop he wants to buy. Before they can get back to where they seemed to be headed, she notices the time and has to run. He asks for a name and phone number. She gives him a number that turns out not to be hers, and he gives her a roll of film that is not the film from the park.
When he develops the film, Thomas is struck by a look on the woman's face in certain shots. He blows up the photos and follows her gaze to the blurred edges of the picture, which upon multiple blowups of blowups examined under a magnifying glass leads him to conclude that he unwittingly photographed a murder.
Along the way Thomas engages in a sexual escapade with two young girls who want to be models, all quite mild by 21st-century standards, enough bare skin to suggest nudity but nothing particularly explicit or titillating, much less erotic. On a return to the park that night he finds a corpse, but for once he is without his camera, so unable to document the discovery. It seems not to occur to him to contact the police.
Back at the studio he finds it has been ransacked, blow-ups ripped from the wall where they were pinned, negatives gone. He goes next door where friends Bill, a painter, and Patricia (Sarah Miles) live. The door is unlocked as usual and Thomas does not knock, also as usual. He walks in on Patricia and Bill in bed. Patricia silently looks up at Thomas with a stricken expression, while Bill is not aware of his presence until the door closes behind him. A bit later Sarah comes to the studio. Thomas asks if she ever thought of leaving Bill. She says, "No, I don't think so." Then he tells her he saw a man shot in the park. When he shows her the single blow-up left behind, she says it looks like one of Bill's paintings, which are almost abstract, with only traces of figuration. Does he really see what he thinks he sees in the blurred patterns? But the woman was agitated about something that may have been caught in the pictures. And his studio was ransacked. Something must have happened.
While driving to find Ron Thomas thinks he spots the woman from the park exiting a shop, but she disappears in a crowd. Searching around he hears music and wanders into a small club where an audience of catatonic young people takes in a performance by the Yardbirds. A guitar is smashed by a frustrated guitarist whose amp is giving him a bad attitude (must be Page or Beck, but I do not know them to distinguish one from the other). The guitarist hurls the neck of the guitar into the crowd. For no discernible reason Thomas, who collects things, the propeller, the junk shop, Bill's paintings if Bill would sell them, wades in, wrests the guitar neck from the frenzied fans, and runs for his life. Once back out on the street he examines his prize, lets it fall to the sidewalk, and continues on his way.
Thomas finds Ron at a party where a great deal of marijuana is being rolled into joints and smoked amid much giggling. Upon encountering Vurushka the model, he says, "I thought you were supposed to be in Paris." She deadpans, "I am in Paris." Thomas tells a very stoned Ron about the body and says they must return to the park to photograph it. Ron says, "But I'm not a photographer." Thomas says, "But I am." And Ron returns to the party.
The film closes the following morning with Thomas back at the park with his camera, but the body is gone. The mime are back though. Thomas watches as they stop their jeep at a tennis court, where two of the troupe mime a game of tennis while the others look on, entranced. Thomas too looks on, though from a distance. After retrieving a mimed ball volleyed over the fence surrounding the court and tossing it back to one of the players, he disappears, replaced on screen by "The End."
Antonioni has said, "I'm really questioning the nature of reality. This is an essential point to remember about the visual aspects of the film since one of its true themes is 'to see or not to see properly the true value of things.'" (quoted in Chatman).
Antonioni may nail something with Blow-Up. I am not sure what it is. His swinging London is bleak, shabby, rather lifeless. The trailer's narrator has it that Antonioni's camera never flinches at love without meaning, at murder without guilt. What kind of hackwork is this? It could hardly be less revelatory. The hiperati are not so much beautiful and bizarre as cardboard cutouts whose interior being lies somewhere the other side of obscurity. Is this the expression of genuine artistic vision? Or absence of inclination or ability to create compelling characters? What can a succession of verbal and visual non sequiturs convey about the nature of reality? Does it matter? Some days I think it does, others not so much. There remains something intriguing about the film, some je ne sais quoi quality that will not allow me to dismiss it. I think Blow-Up is a film worth having seen.
Memo from the Editorial Desk, Sept. 14, 2017
This piece underwent more than a few minor revisions after it was posted. Some derived from reflection and recognition that I might have been well advised to sit on the piece and ponder for a bit before posting. A subsequent viewing of the film, this time online, prompted further thoughts and at least one correction of an outright mistake. I still think Blow-Up is a film worth having seen, maybe worth having seen more than once. But I would not want to make too much of it.
Seymour Chatman, Antonioni: or, the Surface of the World, 1985, Univ of Calif Press, pp. 138–158. I refer readers to Chatman if they are into exposition about the search for text in the textualization of the narrative array the photographs form. Or something like that.
David Hemmings on Blow-Up (Interview). This is pretty good.