Antonioni's The Passenger

By Henry K. Miller

passenger-michelangelo-antonioni-1.jpgThe Passenger, 1975

‘Do you speak English?’ The first line in Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975) only reinforces the film’s already palpable commitment to disorientation. We’re deep in the Chadian desert with Jack Nicholson, but it’s unclear who he’s playing and what he’s doing, and in a typically Antonionian twist on audience identification, his character David Locke is asking the same questions. A British-born, American-educated Panorama reporter, Locke is, we gather, making a documentary on post-colonial Africa; but as soon as we find out what he’s up to – looking for a guerrilla base – he has lost his guide and before long his vehicle. Returning to his hotel he finds another guest, David Robertson, dead in his room. It’s only after discovering a pistol among Robertson’s belongings that Locke decides to swap identities with the dead man.

Locke knows about as much about his mysterious doppelganger as we know about Locke. From a tape Locke plays back as he works on their passports, we learn Robertson was some kind of businessman. When the journalist relates his difficulties in making contact with the rebels, Robertson explains the secret of his undisclosed success: ‘you work with words, images: fragile things; I come with merchandise: concrete things. They understand me straight away.’ We pick up just enough about Locke’s frustration with his profession, and his suspicions about Robertson’s ‘merchandise’ (why, after all, did he tape them talking?) to surmise that in making the switch, Locke is choosing a life of action – as an international arms trafficker, as it turns out – over observation. But Antonioni makes sure it’s only a surmise, and Locke’s view that ‘we translate every situation, every experience into the same old codes’ stands as a warning.

The reporter’s disillusionment with the trade in his own fragile merchandise, elaborated in a series of fragments from his unfinished documentary, owes much, rather surprisingly, given the film’s MGM backing and major star-power, to the intensely politicized film culture of the early 70s. In a scene encapsulating what Peter Wollen, one of the film’s British scriptwriters, has since called ‘a shared vision of cinema, springing from 1968’, the limits of Locke’s BBC impartiality are exposed during a hostile interview in which a European-educated witch doctor turns the camera on his interviewer, declaring that ‘your questions are much more revealing about yourself than my answer would be about me’.

passenger-michelangelo-antonioni-2.jpgThe Passenger, 1975

Locke chooses a life of adventure as a means of escaping this epistemological turmoil, his decision dramatizing a not uncommon conception of the committed filmmaker’s revolutionary duty, crystallized in Jean-Luc Godard’s comment in 1970 that political cinema ‘means maybe taking a gun one day, and the next day going back to a pen or the camera.’ This kind of posturing wasn’t in Antonioni’s line, and his handling of Locke’s first encounter with Robertson’s clients (‘sorry about the anti-aircraft guns, I hope it won’t be too much of a drawback’), who represent the same rebel forces that he was attempting to report on, is slyly satirical. In imagining that taking concrete action will remove the need for reflection, Locke has only multiplied his problems.

As Locke maintains Robertson’s busy gunrunning schedule across Europe, the film assumes the genre identity of the political thriller. His clients are taken down by a Chadian snatch squad; he effortlessly picks up a glamorous companion (Maria Schneider); there’s even a car chase. But just as he struggles to identify fully with Robertson’s cause, so identification with the film’s nominal hero is complicated by frequent slippages in time and space, between point-of-view and ‘objective’ shots. Antonioni, echoing his protagonist, lamented in the pages of Film Comment that ‘Every audience is tied to certain habits in the way that they look at film. If they don’t have the same articulation of scene, they get lost. This makes me crazy.’ Watching The Passenger is a strangely exhilarating experience.

passenger-michelangelo-antonioni-3.jpgThe Passenger, 1975

Much like its discourse on documentary reportage, the film’s formal critique of the thriller came straight from the Left Bank. (Wollen, as the author of the fantastically influential book Signs and Meaning in the Cinema, had almost single-handedly introduced Parisian structuralism to Anglo-Saxon film culture in the wake of ’68.) ‘Z Movies’, the name given to the new wave of politicized thrillers by the French critic Guy Hennebelle after Costa-Gavras’ 1969 hit, were found to ‘borrow the dramatic recipes (plot revelations, palpitating suspense, traditional heroes) of the American-style detective story and inject into it, as it were, a political theme’. The charge against was that these films ‘maintain the illusion that that forms of expression are innocent or neutral and that they can easily be put at the service of any content.’

The Passenger travels in almost the opposite direction. Wollen told Time Out that ‘what Antonioni has done is to remove the connective scenes from the story so as to leave the characters “unexplained”.’ His approach risked making the story unintelligible, and the film’s extraordinary penultimate sequence, a seven-minute travelling shot that encompasses Locke’s death at the hands of the Chadian agents and his wife’s discovery of his identity switch, opens the space between the film’s plot and its articulation in sounds and images to the point of maximum tension. Playing on the basic limitations of the medium – its restricted fields of vision and sound - the shot conveys the bare minimum of information needed for the audience to infer what’s happening; in doing so the viewer is no longer a ‘passenger’. The sequence foxed many of the film’s original critics because they’d edited out the un-Antonioni ‘thriller’ strand from their own version of the movie.

But just as it resolves the thriller plot, so this rightly famous sequence raises the possibility that all along we have been relying on the ‘same old codes’, posing a major and unanswerable question as to the identity of Schneider’s character and her possible role in the killing. Far from endorsing Locke’s pessimism, the root of his leap into unreflecting activism, the sequence is awe-inspiring in its positive embrace of complexity. There is no code that will guarantee a true picture of the world; but this ambiguity is an invitation to engagement, not retreat. Antonioni himself remarked of the film that ‘Things are what they are, they are what you see.’ By inviting the audience to weigh up just what it sees, The Passenger remains a beguiling lesson in the art of watching movies.

Henry K. Miller has written for Film Comment and his writing will appear in the forthcoming book The DVD Stack (Canongate).