Thomas (David Hemmings) emerges from a dosshouse one morning, not because he had to sleep there that night, but because he was taking photographs there for a book which he hopes will launch his career into the big time. Those pictures may be serious and moody, but Thomas actually makes his living as a fashion photographer, and it's to his studio he heads in his Rolls Royce convertible, pausing briefly to be accosted by some students collecting for rag week. Once he reaches his destination, he finds he has to juggle models and his agent and his flatmates... but what if something happened to make him wonder about the reality of all this?
People are very suspicious of Blowup, which was the first film in English by Italian auteur Michelangelo Antonioni, and with good reason, for the film itself is very suspicious of people. It was based on a short story by Julio Cortázar, and adapted by the director and Tonino Guerra, with help from Edward Bond to have the characters speaking English. When a filmmaker works in something other than his native tongue there's a tendency to wonder if the result was quite what he would have had in mind if he made it in his own langauge, but in a film about confusion, this could only assist the overall tone.
Pretentious is the word most associated with this film nowadays, and the dismissal that follows on from that does Blowup few favours. Yet there's nothing here to suggest that Antonioni was anything other than sincere in his efforts to muse over the quality of reality, and if only for its depiction of so-called Swinging London of the sixties, it's a fascinating opus. The film's attitude towards this British trend is not one of embracing it, rather it keeps its cool distance so we can see that Thomas is not much of a hero, being self absorbed and arrogant; if he epitomises Swinging London then perhaps we have good reason to be cynical.
Yet whether by accident or design, the film does make this world seem novel and captivating even as we understand its shallowness. What can jolt Thomas out of his complacency? How about a murder? When he visits a curiously deserted park one morning after failing to buy a painting in an antique shop, just for something to fill the time, he catches sight of a couple and decides that this scene is a peaceful one appropriate for his upcoming book. However, he is confronted by the woman (Vanessa Redgrave) who demands he hand over his film, though he playfully refuses and heads off - they will meet again.
Why does the woman want the negative so badly? When she tracks him down (we never find out how) she appears nervous and he hands over the film - the wrong film. He develops the right one and begins to see odd things in the pictures: is that a man with a gun in the bushes? And is that the male half of the couple lying dead on the ground? When Thomas visits the park that night, he finds the body and it looks as if this icy tone is about to heat up, but then Thomas's awakening conscience is sent spiralling into bewilderment when he cannot prove anything he suspects, leaving him a far less confident character than he was at the start; who knows, he might even be a better, more thoughtful man because of it.
As an examination of perception and illustrating how reliant we are on knowing what we see is genuine, Blowup is haunting and provocative, not simply because it features a riot at a Yardbirds concert and the first glimpse of female pubic hair in British film (thanks to Jane Birkin and the Beat Girl herself, Gillian Hills), although that contributed to the notoriety. Blowup has been the victim of a lack of imagination in its reception over the years, but it's really very beguiling, if only for its beautiful, mysterious visuals. Not to mention some very elegant editing: the part where Thomas examines the photographs is quite brilliantly put together. And it's not all that hard to understand, as the celebrated final sequence of imaginary tennis depicts the theme with graceful simplicity. Music by Herbie Hancock.
Although he divided audiences into those who found his mysterious works pretentious or fascinatingly enigmatic, this celebrated Italian writer and director was always interesting and stylish. L'Avventura in 1960 was his international breakthrough although he'd been directing since the forties, and he followed it with La Notte, L'Eclisse, The Red Desert, Blowup (perhaps his most famous film), Zabriskie Point (with its explosive climax), The Passenger and Identification of a Woman among others. He even continued working after serious stroke, Beyond the Clouds being his best known film from his later period.