Michelangelo Antonioni takes so many risks with his first English-language feature, Blow-Up, that one wonders if he chuckled to himself as he set up all the various red herrings of the movie's structure -- after all, this was the same man who would name his static breakthrough feature "The Adventure." How delighted he must have been when audiences headed into what they would have guessed as a standard thriller capitalizing on the Mod craze hitting London instead became one of the great works of cinematic postmodernism and an attack on the movement that had nothing to do with the pish-posh dismissal of the older generation.
For the driving aspect of Blow-Up is not its snaking plot of a fashion photographer who believes he witnesses a murder in one of his pictures but its postmodernist fixation on simulacra. That the protagonist is a fashion photographer allows Antonioni to set up the Mod subculture as a movement that dissolves the line between the reality of life on the London streets and the false images of advertising that set hollow images of ideal living.
Such a phenomenon is not exclusive to the Mod movement, of course; one could say that advertising informed social perception since the rise of Madison Avenue. Heck, Thomas' (David Hemmings) whimsical detour into an old boutique selling busts suggests that civilizations have created hollow facsimiles of themselves and their citizens since artistic expression evolved beyond the point of cave paintings. Mods just happened to be the closest fashion within reach, so Antonioni dives into the oddly colored and plastic world of mid-'60s London to focus on yet another effect of modernity on human life.
Besides, the director makes great use of the massive contrast between the flashier tones of the subculture and the more dour, refined and, well, "British" demeanor of the city's architecture and the more formal residents. Antonioni opens the film with shots of busy London streets, played in silence when depicting older gentlemen headed to their jobs. When a group of young Mods runs through with their faces painted, however, the director turns the knob to full volume, making a small pack of collegiates sound like a filled football stadium. The constant clash between bright and dull only better visualizes the split between objective reality and the sheen glossed over it, a coating that prevents any meaningful connection even though people attempt to build a way of life on it. No moment of the film stresses how superficial the youth connection to their supposed lifestyle really is than a performance late in the film by The Yardbirds (with both Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page!) in a cellar club as a horde of Mods stand perfectly rooted as if soldiers assembling for their commanders, not processing the killer hard rock blasting out them in any way other than an acknowledgment of duty to the "movement," at which point I wondered if this club was by any chance a beer hall.
And what of Thomas? Oh, what a glorious pig. Though situated in a far higher class than David Thewlis' character in Naked, one can easily see the prototype laid down: Thomas is vainglorious, nihilistic, ragged and just plain greasy. Even more dismissive of his models than the artist in L'Avventura, Thomas viciously orders women around like chattel, placing them with props such as polarized, opaque screens that get darker as they are stacked in front of each other. Considering that he only ever moves the screens once for the re-shoots and berates the models continuously, he appears to treat the inanimate objects with more tact. When two nubile, young fillies walk in off the street and ask for an audition, he claims to be too busy to try them out, only to hop in his car and go out shopping.
Hemmings makes Thomas such a fascinating boor that he makes the typical inaction of an Antonioni film pass like a breeze. A 110-minute ostensible thriller should get to some basic plot outline in the first 30 minutes, but Blow-Up stretches a solid hour before Antonioni deigns to introduce a narrative. Yet Thomas draws our attention nonetheless, the ultimate symbol of mankind's inability to figure out what's real. He shoots a session with model Veruschka, a sensual sequence in which Thomas has the woman writhe around in fake ecstasy as he snakes with her. This erotic but unconsummated scene shows how even the manufacturing of simulacra is itself subject to detached, pop culture-informed ideas of sex. These two don't have sex, but the writhing and shifting positions that emphasize genitalia become a substitute for full copulation, allowing the false image of what sex is to completely replace what the image signifies. So caught up in this subjective state is Thomas that he spends his free time taking voyeuristic pictures of unsuspecting people going about their lives in order to turn reality into something he can understand, manage and even sell.
During one of these impromptu "sessions" in Maryon Park, Thomas photographs what appear to be two lovers. The woman (Vanessa Redgrave), spots him and demands the roll of film, going so far as to chase him back to his flat and seduce him to get the negatives. Intrigued, Thomas gives her a different roll and develops the contentious photographs. Blowing up the images of the woman and her older beau in the park, Thomas sees what appears to be a body behind the couple and a man hiding in the bushes with a gun.
Suddenly inspired, Thomas continues to magnify the images until they become abstract washes of film grain, so distorted that one cannot trust anything in the photograph. By expanding the photographs, Thomas (and Antonioni) exposes the false truth of photography, something that can only be examined up to a point before the supposedly undeniable proof contained in photographs. Furthermore, a photograph can only capture a moment free of context, so Thomas is left to wonder whether the woman knows about the murder and even if she's directly involved.
On some level, Thomas comes to understand this, and he begins to slowly fall apart as his fabricated worldview warps around him. He heads out to the park at night and indeed sees a body, but it's exposed in such a way that someone would likely have found it and called the authorities. Also, no blood or gunshot wound is visible, using the censorship standards of film boards to the film's advantage by raising the question whether this body is really there. When Thomas heads back with a camera to get proof, the body is gone, but news of a discovered body has not hit papers.
What's brilliant about Blow-Up is that Antonioni never misleads us, as much as one might go in with preconceived ideas for a thriller and a foreign director's stab at mainstream Anglophone acceptance. He raises the tension of the film without ever making the tension the focus. Rather than use harsh instrumental glissando to grip the audience into expecting a narrative payoff, Antonioni focuses intently on the shifting aesthetic of the film as subjectivity wrestles with what fleeting grasps we can get of reality. At a party looking for his agent to talk about the murder, Thomas runs into Veruschka again, and comments that he thought she was supposed to be in Paris. "I am in Paris," comes a terribly vacant drone in response, the model just as lost in her plastic consciousness as our protagonist. Thomas finds himself in that basement gig watching The Yardbirds, and during their performance Jeff Beck's amp malfunctions, leading to a Townshend-esque guitar destruction (Antonioni reportedly tried to get The Who). This moment of technical difficulty and vented frustration pokes a hole in the artifice of Mod music, and Thomas rushes forward through the immobile crowd to grab the remains of Beck's guitar as if taking a souvenir of the time he saw through the subculture for an instant.
Antonioni also mines a certain amount of unease due to the fresh memory of the Kennedy assassination. Thomas' obsessive manipulation and examination of a strip of film long past the point of clarity would not look too out of step with an analysis of the Zapruder film. Thomas' barely suppressed paranoia does not match the same conspiratorial fervor that informs much of the Kennedy case, but Hemmings subtly shifts his entire body, to the point that his slimy perspiration at the start of the film gives way to the full droplets of cold sweat.
Like the title of the director's 1960 breakthrough, Blow-Up takes on a wry import, putting the audience in mind for the literal or emotional explosion expected of a thriller, only to reveal that the title refers to the banal act of enlarging photographs, and then taking another turn and drawing suspense from that act. Antonioni does not let us off with a cathartic finale, gently building us up over the last hour until he simply shows that the body is gone. What happened to it, who took it, whether it existed it all remain mysteries, as Thomas deals with his shock by gazing upon a mimed tennis match by some of the face-painted Mods seen hopping around London throughout the film. Bringing the postmodernist nightmare to a close, Thomas ends up joining in, "throwing" back the imaginary that went out of bounds as the film closes with the sound of rackets hitting tennis balls as Thomas looks on, quietly and anticlimactically consumed by madness. Thus, the final triumph of Blow-Up is that achieves its greatest shock after the movie ends and the audience must head back out into an advertising-centric world and wonder what it is that keeps forming a knot in their stomach.