It may be hard to understand now, but in 1966 Blowup caused no little stir, not in the least because of its “infamous” sex scene—the “roll in the purple”—where David Hemmings, Jane Birkin and Gillian Hills cavort in various stages of undress on a crumpled lavender photographic backdrop. This was 1966, mind you, two years before the ratings system, and here was this film daring to show that which was not allowed. It might have passed unnoticed had the film not been a huge international success—garnering the Palme D’or at Cannes and a couple of Oscar nominations—bringing it out of the art-house realm and into mainstream cinema. As Antonioni films go, it’s a remarkably accessible—if not particularly pleasant—work.
The film follows the ennui-ridden (Antonioni dotes on ennui) adventures of a photographer (Hemmings), who accidentally photographs a pair of apparently clandestine lovers (Vanessa Redgarve and Ronan O’Casey). His interest is piqued when the woman is frantic to have the photos back. At first, he merely assumes that the pictures must be compromising, but as he looks at them, he notices something more. The larger he blows them up, the more he sees; eventually, he realizes that he’s photographed a murder.
In essence, this is a murder mystery à la Antonioni, but as is always the case with the director, the answer’s a lemon. In other words, we’re not going to find out whodunit or much of anything about it, except that it happened. In this case, however, the lemon is less sour than the grapes. Antonioni’s purpose with the film seems to be the deconstruction of “Swinging London,” ostensibly laying it bare as a bunch of aimless people trying desperately to have a good time while ignoring their own innate shallowness. This gives the film—especially since Antonioni presents himself as the sophisticated outsider looking in—a somewhat condescending air.
All the same, Blowup is probably the director’s most accessible film, and it’s certainly a key work of 1960s cinema. Technically, there are marvelous things to be seen, especially the scenes where Hemmings studies the photos and a truly odd scene featuring an unbilled appearance by the Yardbirds. In this latter scene, the audience stands in dead silence until mayhem breaks out, and only then is their collective (yes) ennui broken, leading them to behave like an audience at a rock concert. Part brilliant, part disturbing and part pretentious codswallop, Blowup is a film that’s too important to overlook or dismiss out of hand. Plus, it’s worth it to see David Hemmings in his career-defining performance.