Italy / USA / France, 1975
Review by Leo Goldsmith
Posted on 17 October 2005
Source Sony Pictures Classics 35mm print
Features: The 43rd New York Film Festival
I find that you Americans take my films too literally — you are forever trying to puzzle out ‘the story’ and to find hidden meanings where there are perhaps none. For you, a film must be entirely rational, without unexplained mysteries. But Europeans, on the other hand, look upon my films as I intend them to be looked upon, as works of visual art, to be reacted to as one reacts to a painting, subjectively rather than objectively. For Europeans, ‘the story’ is of secondary importance and they are not bothered by what you call ‘ambiguity.’
This is Michelangelo Antonioni’s response to a befuddled American reporter upon the release of his 1975 film, The Passenger. After the critical pillory that followed the release of Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point six years earlier, audiences and reviewers were approaching Antonioni’s new film with a mixture of hope and trepidation. And now that the long-unavailable film is being re-released to American audiences on the occasion of its 30th anniversary, this ambivalent mix of expectations seems wholly justified.
The Passenger begins in the desert, where Locke, an American-educated British television reporter (played by Jack Nicholson), is trying to assemble a documentary on rebel freedom fighters in an unnamed North African country. Locke drives from village to village, trying to coax information out of the natives with a combination of cigarettes and bad French, and ultimately winds up stuck in a sand dune in the middle of the desert. This is surely a Baudrillardian desert, frighteningly empty of signification and (for Locke) cultural signifiers. When he returns to his hotel to find a fellow guest (who just happens to look a lot like Jack Nicholson) has unexpectedly died, it is this exasperating experience of emptiness and the arbitrariness of meaning that prompts him to abandon his identity for a new one.
The remainder of the film follows Locke as he seeks to cast off the remnants of his former life — an adulterous wife, an adopted child (never seen), a professional career of some standing — and start fresh with the identity of his doppleganger, who seems to have been a gun-runner for precisely those rebels that Locke was unable to locate. Running from his past life and unable to fully inhabit his new one, he travels from Africa to England to Germany to Spain, picking up Maria Schneider on the way for some mild sexual interest and sparse dialogue.
But of course, this is an art film — and an Antonioni film at that — so what sounds like a thriller pregnant with romance and political intrigue is rather what we Americans call “ambiguous.” Antonioni is mainly interested in the visual aspect of his film — including some elegant flashbacks and a much-ballyhooed climactic tracking shot — and so the dialogue and exposition are (somewhat characteristically) relegated to the background. Peter Wollen, author of perhaps the most significant book on semiotic film theory in the English language, has provided a rather studied script that occasionally lapses into obviousness. Hence the name “Locke,” and lines like the following:
Locke: What the fuck are you doing here with me?
Girl: Which me?
Locke: The only one I know.
In spite of Antonioni’s admonitions of Americans and their reactions to his work, it would seem that The Passenger is a film that should be taken literally. Its internal semiology about identity and meaning is literalized onscreen: Locke’s own boredom and ennui matches up with the boredom and ennui that the film evokes in its audience.
What is perhaps the film’s greatest mystery is the choice of Nicholson for the low-key, highly internalized character of Locke. Nicholson had calcified his place in the history of American film acting the previous year in Chinatown, a film that brilliantly capitalizes on the actor’s unique ability to make even the most arrogant and reprehensible characters irresistibly charming. This is precisely the quality that David Hemmings lends to Antonioni’s 1966 film, Blow-Up, but in The Passenger Nicholson is given far less to work with. Instead, the actor must do his best with one of Antonioni’s empty-vessel roles, which simply doesn’t play to Nicholson’s strengths. Nicholson is a demonstrably brilliant actor, and one can see the familiar Nicholson character trying to emerge (“The old me is hungry,” he quips at one point). But his under-acting is little more than a novelty here, and it is no wonder that the actor has kept this film so heavily guarded over the years.
Even with its dreaded ambiguity, there is much to admire in The Passenger, particularly in the artfulness of Antonioni’s editing and Luciano Tovoli’s camerawork. And there is even much to decode in Wollen’s script and Antonioni’s images that is perhaps not quite so literal. But like its protagonist, the film flirts with so many possibilities of what it could be — a politically engaged critique of Western image-making, for example — that it never quite affirms what it is.
But then perhaps this is the point, and it is so literal that I, as an American, can’t see it.