Blowup

Movie Information

Blowup, part of a series of Classic Cinema From Around the World, will be presented at 8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 21, at Courtyard Gallery, 9 Walnut St. in downtown Asheville. Info: 273-3332.
Score:

Genre: Mystery Drama
Director: Michelangelo Antonioni
Starring: David Hemmings, Vanessa Redgrave, Peter Bowles, Jane Birkin, Gillian Hills
Rated: NR

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.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

3 thoughts on “Blowup

  1. Dionysis

    I saw this film when it was first released, mainly because (as a British rock fan) I knew it contained a scene with the Yardbirds (doing a song called ‘Stroll On’, a remake of ‘The Train Kept a Rollin’), with both Jimmy Page (on bass) and Jeff Beck playing together. However, I quickly became caught up in the film itself, and have re-watched it several times since then (it was remade, kind of, via a John Travolta film called ‘Blow Out’).
    IMO, this film remains one of the more intriquing films of that era, and is well worth catching. It was released a while back on DVD with a superior video transfer.
    By the way, it is somewhat depressing to compare David Hemmings in this film with the haggard, beached whale version of him today. He’s hardly recognizable anymore.

  2. Ken Hanke

    He’s even less recognizable now that he’s dead, but you’re quite right that time was not kind to Hemmings. Sadder still was the way he was used — or maybe not used — by the movies. If you’ve seen his tortured performance as Samuel Taylor Coleridge in the Ken Russell TV film RIME OF THE ANCIENT MARINER (1978), his wryly humorous turn in Russell’s THE RAINBOW (1988), or his late in the day work in Fred Schepisi’s LAST ORDERS (2002), you realize his talent didn’t diminish with his looks, even if roles were harder to come by.

    It is, by the way, the newer transfer that is being screened. I’d never argue that the film isn’t intriguing — simply that part of that intrigue is sometimes maddeningly obscure.

  3. Dionysis

    I’m sorry, but I was unaware Mr. Hemmings died. And I do agree that he continued to turn in some pretty good performances. The last films I recall seeing him in were Gladiator and Spy Game, even though I recently saw Equilibrium (with Christian Bale) and didn’t even realize Hemmings was in it as I was watching the film.

    Oh well, at least Blowup will remain as a testiment to him.

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