Michelangelo Antonioni’s THE PASSENGER (1975) [9/10]

I watched The Passenger twice in two days, 1st and 2nd August 2006. Liked it the first time, liked it a lot the second time, when I wasn't scrambling all the time to decipher what is, I now accept, an undecipherable plot. Unfortunately for this website and its readers, I wrote a longish essay after the first viewing, but never got round to writing a reaction after the second viewing. I made copious notes (reproduced at the very bottom of this page) with the intention of writing a measured piece explaining why I now regard The Passenger so highly, and one day I may well convert these into a proper review. For the meantime, however, I'm afraid you'll have to make do with the following…

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ROBERTSON IN SPACE
Notes after first viewing
[initial rating : 7/10]

         "… we are utterly uncapable of universal and certain Knowledge." 
          (John Locke, Essay Concerning Human Understanding [1690], iv. iii. 28

'Universal and certain knowledge' is not something any viewer will feel in possession of after experiencing The Passenger, Antonioni's characteristically gnomic anti-thriller about a jaded journalist who escapes from his unsatisfactory existence by assuming the identity of a shady gun-runner. Jack Nicholson turns in one of his quietest, most intense, most untypical performances as David Locke, a British-born, US-educated, American-accented TV documentarian (the film is also known under its Italian title, Professione : reporter) whom we first meet trying to track down rebel guerillas in an unnamed, Saharan-looking African country.

Locke's efforts prove frustratingly unsuccessful: the final straw for a man whose marriage is on the skids, and who – in his mid-thirties – is in the painful throes of a premature mid-life crisis. An unlikely exit presents itself when Locke returns to his hotel to find that the guest in the next room – an Englishman named David Robertson (film-producer Charles 'Chuck' Mulvehill never appeared in another feature-film), with whom he'd been slightly acquainted – has died from a heart-attack. Noting the more-than-passing similarity between himself and his namesake, Locke pulls a 'Talented Mr Ripley'-style trick and swaps his passport photo with the dead man, thus blithely assuming his identity. Locke's "death" is reported around the world – and "Robertson" returns to Europe, keeping various appointments noted in the dead man's diary (like Nicholson's Robert Eroica Dupea in Five Easy Pieces (1972), Locke deals with his problems by fleeing them.)

After a brief spell London, Locke-as-Robertson travels to Munich, then Barcelona, then the dusty environs of Almeria. Thinking Robertson might shed some light on the circumstances of her husband's death, Locke's estranged wife Rachel (Jenny Runacre) dispatches his colleague Knight (Ian Hendry) to Barcelona – but Locke gets wind of this quasi-Hitchcockian 'pursuit', and stays one step ahead with the help of a young student. Played by Maria Schneider (a welcome, lively and charismatic presence in a picture which has a tendency to bog down into contemplative ennui), she's billed only as 'Girl' in the end-credits – the casting makes her namelessless a reference to Schneider's best-known role, in Bertolucci's Last Tango In Paris, where the main two characters deliberately never identified themselves to each other. But this isn't just a cinephiliac in-joke: both films deal with issues of identity in explicitly existential terms – i.e. we are what we do, rather than being the sum of our prior experiences. As Locke discovers, however, all actions have consequences – and assuming another man's life brings with it certain responsibilities and dangers…

It's possible to write a very pat, straightforward synopsis of the film: but to do so would be to miss the point. Events and people are left open to subjective interpretation – as befits a character with only one Lock(e) but an infinite amount of potential keys, many of which only become apparent in retrospect. The Passenger lingers in the mind, and it's certainly absorbing to ponder its complexities – even if some aspects of it haven't dated especially well. The English-language dialogue often sounds stilted and portentous – it comes across best when filtered through Schneider's mildly-accented pronunciation. Seen three decades on, the film is prescient in the post-modern way it addresses identity – specifically within the context of movement within Europe in a pre-Easyjet era when nipping from country to country wasn't quite the taken-for-granted norm it is today. As such, it's in some ways the ur-text for more recent variations on similar themes such as Dominik Graf's Der Felsen (2002), Lynne Ramsay's Morvern Callar (2002) or Nanouk Leopold's Guernsey (2005) – all of which, perhaps coincidentally, feature female protagonists.

Schneider's Girl is, however, ostensibly the secondary figure in The Passenger – although a quirk of circumstance means that her character has at least as much claim to be the actual 'passenger' of the title than Nicholson's Locke/Robertson: Antonioni's original concept was for the latter to be driven around Spain by the Girl, only for this idea to be stymied when he found out that Schneider couldn't drive. Even the title thus becomes another source of intrigue: perhaps we are all passengers, no longer in control of our destinies as we are guided through a wilderness of anomie, existential angst.

As with Blow Up (1966), Antonioni's patient, slow pace (too slow for some) allows the patient viewer to absorb the 'clues' strewn throughout the film: it's surely no accident that the film ends on a date clearly identified as September 11th, 1973 – the day on which Chile's President Salvador Allende was killed during the military coup which installed General Pinochet. Though ostensibly about very personal crises, the film repeatedly forces us to look at events in an explicitly political context – harrowingly explicit, as in an execution sequence (staged?) which Knight watches on videotape while compiling a tribute to the 'deceased' Locke. The "reporter" of the film's Italian title is close to the "action" (he interviews the despot ruler of the unnamed African state) but not a participant: when he becomes more of an active 'player' he stumbles into areas way beyond his experience and expertise. The moral is therefore not "don't get involved," but perhaps "know what you're getting into when you do get involved."

The film's topical, political trappings do feel a little bolted-on to the main narrative, however, which works best on a more intimate level, sustaining a slow-burning atmosphere of paranoid menace. Tantalising hints abound, for example, as to the identity of 'Daisy' (male? female?) with whom the original Robertson has numerous appointments. But there's no conventional thriller denouement in which Daisy is conclusively revealed: Antonioni is more interested in creating and exploring a network of insinuations, interlocking fragments, things half-seen and half-heard. When Schneider's "Girl" introduces herself as "a student of architecture," she's not merely justifying Antonioni taking us around various Gaudi buildings in Barcelona. It's like the line in Scorsese's GoodFellas when, after a virtuouso, protracted tracking-shot through a nightclub's kitchens and out onto the dance-floor, Ray Liotta's character responds to a question about his occupation by saying he's "in construction."

The Passenger features what might be described as the arthouse equivalent of Scorese's show-off tour de force: the penultimate shot (not, as some sources claim, the very last shot) is a six-and-a-half-minute one-take sequence of startling confidence and intricate choreography in which the the camera of cinematographer Luciano Tovoli (who in 1982 managed to top even this breathtaking coup de cinema with his even more intricate extended-shot in Dario Argento's Tenebrae) starts in a hotel room, moves towards and then (somehow) through the bars of the window (shades of Michael Snow's Wavelength?), then turns and shows us what's been going on 'behind' us while our eyes have been directed on events outside.

The eagle-eyed viewer will, however, have partially "seen" the goings-on in the hotel-room (which are crucial to the "plot") via the dark window-frames folded back into the room: like the David Hemmings character at the centre of Blow Up, we think we know what we're seeing, but can't quite be sure: the difference being that, if we're watching the film in a cinema (as intended), there's no way to freeze the image or ask for a rewind. When the credits roll, we must piece together what we've seen and heard – following the basic human impulse to rationalise and explain wherever possible. Although, as Blow Up reminds us, to do so is to rely heavily on a less-than-perfect witness: our memory. Because, as with 'understanding', certain and universal recall is something of which we are all 'uncapable.'

Neil Young

2nd August, 2006

THE PASSENGER : aka Professione – Reporter : [9/10] : Italy (It/Sp/Fr) 1975 : Michelangelo ANTONIONI : 126m (BBFC timing)

seen at The Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle-upon-Tyne (UK)
1st and 2nd August 2006; public shows; paid  £6.20 each time

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rough notes after second viewing

The Passenger

SCR : Peploe, Antonioni, Wollen; STORY : Peploe alone

Early running: dry comedy of Locke's 
(1) predicament in the desert [wave at passing camel… "water" … "no soap"]
          Kid revealed by prowling camera as Locke's the first "passenger"
(2) antics in disguise [false moustache… hiding behind tree / pillar]
          In Barcelona : sweaty upper lip – pastes moustache onto globe lamp

Locke up close with the soon-to-be-corpse Robertson: their hands in close proximity on the African balcony. Says Roberson (homo-erotic subtext?) "I prefer men to landscapes" 
[SOUND >then> VISION as if recorded….] 
Robertson's windows are arranged in same way as Locke's at end – prefiguration?

Camera placing and movement are foregrounded: wanders over the surface of the wall (idly examining light-cable – suddenly moves left towards when waiter comes in with drinks)
The camera is always discovering and emphasising

Locke was noted for "A kind of detachment" – Hendry on TV
Locke was noted for his powers of "observation … a philosophical detachment" – glimpsed Times obit (which confirms existence of son)
In his home : Moravia book : Which Tribe Do You Belong To? (published 1974; action is taking place in 1973)

Suddenly Locke/viewer are in London/Munich – airports seen, but no modes of international transport are shown. Drollery at the Avis car-hire desk : "Yugoslavia… I'll go to Yugoslavia."

In Munich : white carriage : WEDDING : odd-looking guests and groom… leads Locke into bonfire-flashback memory [casually dropped into the picture : then we see it's not his memory but his wife's               

Humour in the church: Locke counts money "Jesus Christ! … (Sorry)"
His befuddled daze with the revolutionaries (which side are they on?)
Locke comically 'winging it': "I'm sorry about the anti-aircraft guns. I hope it won't be too much of a … drawback…" (his voice has a Malkovich lightness)
His dazed bemusement : straightfaced comedy

Detachment – has its pitfalls – wife complains he's too "accepting"… "David really wasn't so different – he accepted too much". British actors struggle a bit with the stilted, arch-sounding dialogue (stagey Berkoff, Runacre)

The passports are the key : the initial photoswap between Locke and Robertson's documents (we note their oddly similar expressions) – Rachel's discovery… Mrs Robertson's passports – Daisy packs his bag in Barcelona ("I'll give you my passport")             Professione
'
The Girl' says "You learn much more, packing someone's things" – compares it with sleeping with somebody

the film has a fluidity in time, space and sound
in archive footage, the President's words aren't quite in synch with his lips
Says Rachel : "you involve yourself in real situations but you've got no real dialogue."
Marital discord abounds : in Barcelona, at the Gaudi-built flats, The Girl eavesdrops on a marital argument on the next floor down. Robertson has "no wife," so perhaps has left her Daisy (?)
Marital discord : final shot is of squabbling older couple in dusty Osuna 

footloose liberation in Barcelona : drink-fuelled                 
it's a cosmic joke – for a while he enjoys the ride
LANGUAGE issues abound : in Barcelona, the oldster looks at kids and sees "the same old tragedy"
Robertson's ITINERARY is followed by Locke
"If you try hard enough, perhaps you can reinvent him"

Highsmithian hijinks in hotel lobby

Locke's first exchange with The Girl ('Daisy'?)  : "What is it?" / "The man who built it was hit by a bus."
Later: "I can't recognise you – who are you?" / "I used to be somebody else, but I traded him in"

Comedy keeps us going – and alluring camerawork
His lousy Spanish (his French isn't much better)
               
Offbeat touches, odd locations                                       
a fundamentally UNLIKELY tale
"There's someone following me." / "Another one?" she deadpans

Comic : Daisy eludes the following Martin (Barcelona car pursuit) – very easily
SHOT OF SCHNEIDER and the trees – very simply achieved, but transcendent/ecstatic (trippy even)
resembles HIS "wings" over the water in Barcelona : but a step beyond
                "There is no way to explain it, is there?"

Roadside cafe : "A waiter in Gibraltar." – "Too obvious."
                "A novelist in Cairo." – "Too romantic!"
                "A gun runner." – "Too unlikely."
                                reveals how much he's 'sold' : "I like it."         
                                                SHE is the only one who KNOWS
           The Girl: "I'm a tourist – become a bodyguard – studying architecture."

Elegant quasi-mystery

Eavesdropping bellhop                      
"The Soul of the Age" – glimpsed book

WITCH DOCTOR in recorded interview – his speech is the film's key (a Rorschach : expectations of viewer are crucial in determining how film is approached)
"Mr. Locke, there are perfectly satisfactory answers to all your questions, but I don't think you can understand how little you can learn from them.  Your questions are much more revealing about yourself than my answers would be about me."
"I meant them quite sincerely."
"Mr. Locke, we can have a conversation, but only if it's not just what you think is sincere, but also what I believe to be honest."
"Yes, of course, but…"
The man gets up and turns the camera away from him and toward Locke.
"Now we can have an interview.  You can ask me the same questions as before

"Your husband died from a heart attack" – ambassador's word isn't worth much – unreliable

Desire to start new every day – "the world doesn't work like that." / "But it doesn't work the other way either."

Are the meetings all with her (Melina, etc)?

"What the fuck are you doin here with me"
SHE is the enigma – we know ALL about him
wordgames : "She thinks he's in danger." / "In danger of what?"
Comic : spotted > pursuit > screeching tires
                Car "chase" – dinky Spanish "pursuit" car
Something comic in nearly all scenes (Car trouble : "It will run? / "Slowly.")

9/11/73 : Allende parallel (fatuous?)                               
"We don't need your passport. One is enough" – this line proves she's Mrs Robertson (or does it?)

Tale of blind man who regains sight and commits suicide
                                is this HER tragedy?
eye must watch two things at same time (sun-dazzle doesn't help) – listen for the backfire

movement within the frame, and movement of the frame : one of the great shots
                slowly transcends the possible
                the ultimate DETACHMENT

her exit : DRIVING SCHOOL CAR ?!                           
bickering couple (she knits?)