Obviously this deserves a lot more attention than what’s about to follow. It’s one of the quintessential art house films, it’s what made Antonioni even cooler with the English-speaking world, and it’s one of the most engrossing bits of cinematic existentialism ever composed. Like in L’Avventura, the mystery within the film is never solved; only the search is given attention, with a heavy emphasis on subjectivity. As the main character gets bored and wanders, so also does the camera. (At least in Blow-Up the main character at the beginning is still the main character at the end.) It’s not a stretch to think about the lyrics, “Strawberry Fields/ Nothing is real” while watching this film. Much of it takes place in a green park, a weird, enclosed and also public space that’s literally on a different plane than the rest of reality, whatever that is. It’s a postmodern Eden with a sort of stairway to Heaven one takes to get there.
Once there, happenings are a strange mix of poetry, reality, and myth. A serpentine woman tricks a man into his own murder, and a none-too-innocent bystander watches most of it transpire, developing an obsession over it precisely because the woman begs him to let it go. He never reports the murder, and ultimately he doesn’t care. He ascends into his loft where he develops and blows up photographs of the episode, clearly a reference to a similar character in Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom. If Laura Mulvey is right, the darkroom in that film stands for a kind of repressed id, a realm where the character can be himself in all of his shame and where he grants access to no one. (See also Norman Bates’ basement in Psycho.)
It’s in this realm where he accesses the grainy, distorted, yet supposedly “real” photos of what took place are developed (an interesting, revealing word). As quickly and easily as the photos come into “being,” they also disappear without a trace. Just as L’Avventura was a double entendre, capturing notions of the “adventure” as well as the “fling,” so also is the title of Blow-Up. The photographer enlarges the photographs, but in so doing he annihilates them and, somehow, himself. We, like the nameless main character played by David Hemmings, only see the photos in his upstairs, private, windowless space. Their disappearance, along with their graininess, make him wonder what really happened, if anything. At the film’s conclusion, the character’s disappearance over the ultra-green (unreal?) grass call into question his existence and what the spectator has seen, or thinks s/he has seen. After all, preceding his dissolution, he gave up on reality. He takes part in a faux game of tennis with a group of hedonistic mimes. Outnumbered, when they depend on him to pick up the non-existent stray ball, he cooperates. So the question of what is real evaporates along with his very being.
If L’Avventura illustrated the sickness of eros, Blow-Up depicts the sickness of existence itself. What narrative there is in this film is at the mercy of the character’s whims. His point of being, and therefore his state of being, is in question from the beginning. He takes periodic breaks to become one of the fools that bookend the film. He acts unpredictably and egocentrically, knowing no other ethic. The lack of the real centrality of his ego, however, the problem of his self and identity, ruptures the heart of his ethic.
The photography that is central to the film contains a primal element, self-referentially alluding to cinema itself. Early shots in the film confirm this rather explicitly. The protagonist, before we know him to be the protagonist, departs a factory in the early morning in the midst of a mass exodus of workers. What is happening on screen, along with the placement of the camera, points back to the first-ever motion picture: Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory by the Lumière Brothers in 1895. Whereas that early film featured a static camera that did not stray from the group and did not discriminate from among the workers, the camera in Blow-Up does the opposite. It remains motionless only briefly, then wanders toward a particular individual who essentially sneaks into the film, where he doesn’t belong. This foreshadows his later sneaking into a murder where he doesn’t belong. In all of this, the acts of filmmaking and photographing are given a sinister edge. Any idea of the camera’s objectivity is obsolete, as it becomes clear that there are powers behind the operation of a camera. As in Peeping Tom, the operators are also powerless, however, wrestling with their own obsessions and fears.