DVD Review Of The Passenger

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 5/18/07


  Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1975 film, The Passenger (Professione: Reporter in Europe, and at one time called Fatal Exit), written by Antonioni, Peter Wollen, and Mark Peploe, is a terrific film that falls just shy of some of his truly great films like La Notte, L’Eclisse, and Blowup. That’s because, despite Antonioni’s usual visual brilliance, daring use of silences, and a unusually reserved performance from Jack Nicholson- one that is a bit of true acting, from long before he started phoning in performances; it is mild, void of memorable tics or quotes (save a humorous taking of Christ’s name in vain in a German church that he reflexively apologizes to the air for, such as in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, The Shining, or Batman), the film grinds to an emotional and narrative halt whenever Maria Schneider (no relation) appears onscreen. Simply put, she’s not that good of an actress- which is why she faded after the 1970s, in her first post-Last Tango In Paris role, and she’s not even particularly physically attractive, even in a European sense. No, her sorry and dull performance is not enough to torpedo the film like the weak last half of L’Avventura does that film, but it is enough to keep the film from the pantheon. The Passenger was also Antonioni’s third English language film, after Blowup and Zabriskie Point. Music is almost wholly absent in this film. Seeing is all important in Antonioni films, and the effect of such silences is jarring. Antonioni’s use of silences and spaces in the film frame reminds of the visuals of Vermeer’s paintings, usually set in rooms that exude silences.

  The tale, what little there is of it, is very similar, from a macro perspective, to that in Blowup, in that much of what seems to be is not. The central character, Dave Locke (Nicholson), leads a shallow, anomic life as a documentary film reporter from England- who speaks with an American accent because he was educated in the States, a silly contrivance, who is trying to make not break news of a supposed war going on in an African country that is home to a pink desert with black mountains- perhaps Chad?, but instead of stumbling on to a mystery, as in Blowup, the lead character is the mystery. He impulsively switches places with a dead man, named Robertson (Charles Mulvehill) in a hotel room adjoining his, who could be a veritable doppelganger- the first of many coincidences in this film, after he has to walk back when his vehicle gets stuck in the desert after he goes to film rebels for a documentary. Such synchronicities are a major theme. The problem for Locke is that the ringer is a gun runner for the rebels in the meager little civil war that the country is enduring. This is the set up. However, this is all done with a bravura touch- as Locke stares deeply into Robertson’s unblinking dead eyes, as if absorbing his identity, as a flute plays- the rare intercession of a soundtrack. The black Africans at the hotel never question Locke’s claim that he is Robertson, despite not speaking with a British accent, as Antonioni nicely inverts the racist belief that all blacks look and sound alike, as the blacks cannot distinguish between two white men.

  As the tale goes on we find out that Locke’s redheaded London wife Rachel (Jenny Runacre) is looking for him, even though she has a lover (Steven Berkoff). When Locke returns to England, wearing a fake mustache, he finds this out, so takes some money, never to return. It’s not clear, when he assumed Robertson’s identity, whether or not he did so just to leave the country, or was he planning to abandon his life. Regardless, knowing his wife has been faithless, he’s determined to never return. This is a very stripped down narrative. We learn a bit about Locke and Robertson, as the film goes on, but virtually nothing of depth about any of the other characters, including Schneider’s unnamed female character, an architecture student, whom Locke first sees in London, then in Barcelona. Why she decides to help Locke and the two quickly become lovers, is another mystery, since she has the depth of a paperweight, and sex appeal of a scruffy mutt. She helps him keep a step ahead of Rachel- who gets what Locke has done when she comes upon his tape recorded conversation with the real Robertson and sees their passport photo likeness, and his film boss, Martin Knight (Ian Hendry), as well the police in Spain, and some of the African dictator’s hitmen, who catch up with the rebels Locke met as Robertson, in the German church, and got a wad of money from. They had followed him after an oblivious Locke walked past them in an airport, not knowing they had a meeting planned.

  In a great touch, Antonioni tells us more of Locke when we see his snippets of documentary footage with his wife and boss, and from Rachel’s and Locke’s flashbacks with each other, and Locke’s with Robertson, whom he earlier met at the hotel where Robertson died of a heart attack, then we ever get from Nicholson in the main ‘real time’ narrative. One can surmise, from these looks backward, Locke was tired of filming executions (a supposedly real one, if the film commentary by Peploe is to be believed) and sycophantically interviewing dictators. When his wife, in flashback, asks him why he did not call the man a liar, Locke replies, ‘Because those are the rules,’ which also gives a clue as to why he wants to escape his life and its rules. There is also a shared memory by Rachel and Locke of his burning leaves in the backyard that links the two, via editing. The flashbacks with Robertson are done as the camera merely pans sideways from Locke to what seem to be Locke and Robertson standing not far away. However, perhaps the best example of this use of the past to explain the present comes when Locke interviews an African folk doctor who was educated in Europe. He asks if the doctor can still believe in folk remedies, despite his education. The doctor rebuts: ‘I believe your questions demonstrate more about you than my answers demonstrate about me.’ He then turns the camera about on Locke, and we see him try to avoid squirming. This not only gives us information on Locke, but is Antonioni stating that, just as the camera can be turned inward toward Locke the camera is also looking at the viewer, and is thus insinuating a connection between Locke and the audience as emotional doppelgangers. Of course, we never get to see nor hear what the doctor interviews Locke about, as that is irrelevant to Antonioni’s point, and the main tale.

  As the film draws to an end, Locke and the girl head toward the Hotel de la Gloria in Osuna, on September 11, 1973, according to Robertson’s datebook, in a synchronicity that could never have been foretold when the film was made. He wants to meet the gun runners, for some more cash, but they do not know that the African assassins are coming to kill Robertson, just as the police and Rachel are coming to capture Locke. This leads in to the much debated penultimate sequence, which runs almost eight minutes long, in an unbroken tracking shot, and is as memorable as the spectacularly grotesque and absurd final minutes that end L’Eclisse. Locke and the girl have met again at the hotel- after a brief parting for her to set up his escape to Africa, with her assuming the role of Mrs. Robertson, and she then leaves his room, at his request, after he tells her a brilliant anecdote of a blind man who gets his sight back, only to be so depressed at the world’s ugliness that he suicides three years later. Locke then goes and opens a window that has bars- a bit too heavy and obvious use of symbolism for my taste, and outside we see the goings on outside of a bullfighting stadium.

  Locke then lays down on the bed, and the camera, with the barred window center-frame, zooms in, past Locke’s feet, as we watch much transpire, outside, between the bars, as the set break away in two halves on wheels- a trick Antonioni borrows from several Hitchcock films, most notably The Wrong Man and The Birds- and mentioned as such in the film commentary, as the camera breaks through and free of its constraints. Outside, an old man sits, a young boy tosses stones at him, then the African assassins come into frame, from a car, and a black man heads into the hotel, as a white man intercepts the girl, as she waits outside. There are odd sounds, and what might be a muffled gunshot. Then cops arrive, as well as the police and Rachel. The girl beats them inside, but as the camera revolves a hundred and eighty degrees outside and looks back at the hotel, through the bars of Locke’s room, we see Rachel claim that the seemingly dead man on the bed is not Locke.

  Is she in denial? Is she so angered at his antics that she denies him even a death? Too much critical focus has been placed on Rachel’s denial, rather than the girl’s stoic admission that she knew the deceased. If she really cares or loves Locke, would she not be upset at his demise? Why would she be so passive then, and, in the minutes before, when she sees an assassin headed into the hotel? Narratively, despite the girl’s impassivity throughout the film, there is a reasonable explanation. The dead man is not Locke, for we never see his face when Rachel fails to identify him as Locke. Earlier, the girl and Locke had set in motion a scheme to meet up in Africa a few days after the September 11th meeting. In the seemingly real time that passes, as the camera goes through the bars, it is conceivable that Locke again pulls a switcheroo, and that the girl, unmoved to act nor react to save the dead man in the bed, could simply know that Locke is alive and pulled off a hoax. That would explain her lack of emotion, as could the fact that she might have been setting up Locke/Robertson, and in cahoots with the killers. although that seems much less likely.

  But, who would the dead man have been, if not Locke? In a sense, that’s irrelevant, for it could be Locke has finally achieved his escape from himself. It would have to have been a third man- not Locke nor Robertson, for Rachel knows what Locke and the real Robertson looked like, and exclaims not that the dead man is not Locke nor Robertson, but that she’s never seen the dead man before. Also, Locke knows he’s meeting dangerous people, but shows no concern, as if he has an ace up his sleeve. He may know that his fate is nigh, and tricks a sucker to take his place in death, as Robertson had taken his. Locke clearly longs for escape throughout the film. When an early meeting with Robertson’s cronies does not materialize, Locke talks with an old man who tells him his life’s tale, but seems to have a fatalistic bent. He tells Locke, ‘When I watch them [meaning children], I just see the same old tragedy starting again.’ Has Locke finally gotten off the gerbil wheel? There’s a brilliant scene of him hanging out of an aerial tram, shot from above, where he flaps his arms as a bird, and seems to be flying over a beautiful harbor, which suggests that he not only desires such flights of freedom and fancy, but is destined to succeed.

  Of course, while there are parts of the film that point to these interpretations of the ending, they are by no means definitive- again, Antonioni’s point. Too much has been written of this film, and Antonioni’s oeuvre, that makes wildly absurd claims that are wholly unsupportable, but insisted upon far more rigidly than is my better alternative explanation than the common wisdom. Much of it is mere psychobabble by critics who claim nonsense such as the girl being the real Robertson’s real wife- after all, she claims to be Mrs. Robertson at the hotel, with far less evidence than my suggestion that the dead man at film’s end may not be Locke. There are even laughable claims that this film must be seen as a religious allegory.

  The film, despite its marketing, is definitely not a thriller, nor even a character study. It is an existential enigma that is open to interpretation, and even acts as a sort of deconstruction of the many clichés that infest thrillers- such as Schneider’s shallow and stereotypical girl; mere eye candy who spouts banalities she does not understand, and can barely pronounce. If Hitchcock was the master of the Hollywood thriller, based upon suspense, then The Passenger is a thick lungy spat on its corpse. The film is also far more relevant today than when it was made, for two of its major themes- identity theft and the senselessness of war, and its profiteering- are far more prevalent today. The only acting performance of note is Nicholson’s. The rest of the cast are typical Antonioni puppets, spread out against a landscape that evokes both Blowup and L’Avventura. But, where Hitchcock films focus on the puppets who, as puppets, are rather shallow, Antonioni focuses on the puppet theater- which is the natural world. The immense beauty of nature often overwhelms his characters, much as- a century earlier- the immense and detailed landscape paintings of Frederic Edwin Church (Antonioni’s predecessor in oils)- dwarf human representations. The only exception to this rule is Locke- who rejects nature’s beauty, even though he’s as empty as the landscapes in the film. This is also why he seems to have instinctively taken Robertson’s life- for that man had a purpose (however noble or ignoble) that Locke could sense, even before he realized Robertson was supplying guerillas. Thus, Locke’s is the only memorable character and performance, and Nicholson is much better in this film’s understated role than in his showier performances that bracket this one- in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown and Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

  The film was beautifully shot by Luciano Tovoli in France, Spain, and North Africa and is shown in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The Sony Classics DVD transfer is excellent, although not quite as pristine as the DVD for Blowup, despite being a decade younger. The only extra features are the film’s trailer, and the film commentaries by Nicholson, and one with Peploe and journalist Aurora Irvine. Nicholson seems to have recorded his commentary with a sore throat, and goes for long minutes without a word. He does have some insight, but overall the lack of insight into the film or its making makes the track seem superfluous. Nicholson may have done it only because he owns the rights to the film and felt his name on a commentary track could add to the film’s DVD sales. Peploe adds some interesting technical comments, as well as letting us know that an interesting scene of ants walking up a wire in the African hotel was scripted.

  That many dense American critics and viewers do not respond to Antonioni is sadly predictable, and an illustration of their frenetic MTV-level need to be spoonfed every possible detail and interpretation of a work of art, rather than engage it, imbue it, and find satisfactory answers to such queries on their own. Antonioni subverts such lowest common denominator expectations with ease and glee, and The Passenger is a terrific illustration of that claim, chock with its ellipses in time and narrative, as well as proof that film was the last century’s most important and defining art form, well beyond writing or music, whose heydays were in earlier centuries. Its flaws are minors, but the things it offers to those willing to take from it are major. I say, be greedy.


[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Unlikely 2.0 website.]

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