The Giallo Project #4: Blowup
Director: Michelangelo Antonioni; Starring: David Hemmings, Vanessa Redgrave, Sarah Miles; Music: Herbie Hancock; US theatrical release date: December 18th, 1966
“Slowly, slowly… against the beat.” - The unnamed photographer of Blowup
“What’s the meaning of this?” you ask. “I thought this was the Giallo Project?” It’s a valid enough question, and I thought long and hard about whether or not to include Blowup in this rogue’s gallery, but eventually I came to the conclusion that I couldn’t afford to ignore it. You see, while I don’t believe it possible to describe this as a giallo in the truest sense (although both Blood and Black Lace and The Giallo Scrapbook 2 do so), I suspect that it had a profound impact on virtually every giallo beyond a certain point in history. It undoubtedly had a huge influence on Dario Argento, who adapted several of its themes into The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and indeed all of his 1970s gialli, and, in turn, the various directors who set out to imitate Argento’s work ended up adopting these same themes and stylistic traits second-hand - imitations of an imitation, as it were. Besides, I thought it only right that I do something to acknowledge Antonioni’s recent death.
Beyond the plot, which, if you break it down, is basically the same as virtually every Argento giallo - an artist living as an outsider in a contemporary urban space, flitting around unable to settle, witnesses (or believes he has witnessed) a crime taking place, the solution to which lies in a single image or memory that he can’t quite understand - it’s the very atmosphere that so closely mirrors everything from The Bird with the Crystal Plumage to The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh: a sort of decadence, a society of bourgeois excess, where people are obsessed with useless commodities and avant-garde art, and seem to have to real purpose in life. I wasn’t around to experience the 60s first-hand (far from it!), but I can easily see this as a defining statement of the atmosphere and mood of the period. In some respects, it makes the same point as Blood and Black Lace, and yet the bleak urban landscapes are a world away from the gothic opulence of Bava’s film.
David Hemmings’ unnamed photographer is clearly the forerunner to Sam Dalmas and Marc Daly - and indeed, Argento even cast Hemmings as Marc in the seminal Deep Red, itself a clever inversion of Blowup which actually manages to outclass its predecessor. In many respects, though, he’s a far nastier piece of work than the two of them put together. Daly had some rather antiquated ideas about the place of women in society, while Dalmas seemed to treat his girlfriend as a commodity, but they pale in significance to the character in Blowup (referred to as “Thomas” in many sources but never actually named in the film itself - actually, names are almost completely absent, a reference, perhaps, to the characters’ lack of identity and failure to find a place for themselves in the world), who manhandles several models, forcibly “posing” them and berating them for being useless, not to mention toying with blackmailing a woman (Vanessa Redgrave) who objects to having her picture taken on the sly. That’s effectively Antonioni’s (and Argento’s) point, though: he is a vain, self-absorbed prick, continually searching for a perfect image that doesn’t exist, and searching for meaning where there is none. Of course, it’s therefore entirely appropriate that the central mystery is a single image whose very meaning continues to elude him (and the more he focuses on the image, the more he loses perspective).
In many regards, Blowup is about as anti-giallo as you can get - there are no on-screen murders, and the film is famous for its deliberate refusal to provide a solution to its central mystery - and yet in orders, you can see the roots of so many 70s gialli in it that it’s impossible to ignore it completely. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the giallo of the golden age is effectively a marriage between Bava’s early efforts and Blowup, filtered through Argento’s sensibility and adopted by a slew of imitators - a reinterpretation of the form in the context of the post-1968 cultural revolution. It’s a brilliant, baffling, mesmerising film in its own right, but when you consider the knock-on effect that it had on the giallo movement, its importance becomes all the more clear.
Next time, I’ll be dipping into the bizarre world of Giulio Questi’s baffling Death Laid an Egg.