1975Director: Michelangelo Antonioni
Cast: Jack Nicholson, Maria Schneider
he Passenger ends where it begins, a desert of utter desolation and unlimited possibility, a void where a man can both lose and reinvent himself, a perfect tabula rasa that is of the world but also removed from it. And so with Antonioni's frustrating and confounding lost film, little seen since 1975, now getting a restored re-release—hypnotic and beguiling, it lures you into itself with the promise of revelation, only to strand you in a wasteland of hopeless recurrence, a vast blank of true meaninglessness, where any discernable change is superficial and inconsequential. It's less a film than a two hour stare into the depthless immutable space where interiors and exteriors collapse into one another, utterly confounding and yet strangely entrancing, like you are being presented with the ineffable answer to a question that is impossible to articulate.
We never really find out why reporter Jack Nicholson's (preternaturally restrained, almost vanishing into the film, but oddly enough, all the more captivating for it) David Locke (Locke indeed) assumes the identity of the dead man he discovers in an adjacent hotel room. He simply steps out of his old life and into a new one without a second thought. Perhaps its frustration from fruitlessly chasing a story about guerrillas across the desert (in Africa, presumably, though the country is never identified)—or maybe it's estrangement from his wife—or maybe it's just simple boredom. Later in the film, while driving down a desolate highway with the girl (Maria Schneider) he meets in Barcelona, she asks him what he's running from. He tells her to turn around in the backseat, and all we see is the empty road retreating to the horizon. We know so little of this man, that ascribing motive is impossible, and probably beside the point anyway. Locke is a cipher whose only discernable traits are exhaustion and resignation—a state into which he quickly reverts after the initial excitement of freeing himself wears off. There is no appreciable difference, no genuine reinvention, resulting from the identity swap. Drawn across Europe by Robertson's (the dead man, an arms dealer trading with the aforementioned guerrillas) appointment book, attempting to impose a new order, a new "code," on himself, Locke becomes the passenger of his new life, a detached observer along for the ride but unable to pick the route, to control his direction. His "new" life and his old never diverge—he's in the same place he was when he "traded himself in"—only the names have changed, the fundament hasn't.
This girl (she has no name) he meets seems to offer a fleeting promise of hope, of an escape from this eternal passivity. And yet she is only the embodiment of possibility, of a dream forever beyond reach. They talk of flight, of different lives in different countries, all of them pipe dreams. His only true motivation comes towards the end of the film, when his past, his previous life, his previous name, begin to catch up with him. He realizes that what he truly was looking to do was disappear, to vanish completely into the void, and now even this is impossible. Initially he flees his pursuers (his wife, the police, and the guerrillas) but ultimately resigns himself to his inevitable fate, returning to the desert (here in rural Spain) to await his only possible release.
Working from the same palette of impenetrable opacity as he did in his masterpiece, Blow-up, Antonioni absolutely refuses to yield any answers, and frustrates even the positing of questions (Locke's and ours) with his slippery and languorous direction, the camera always seeming to slide just beyond our grasp, luring us ever deeper into the film's vast desolate space. This, the camera, is the driver. And this camera plays tricks on Locke—at times it seems to be showing him the way, offering the path towards his imagined salvation. And yet, repeatedly, it strands him—in cities, in deserts—imprisoning him in the soul-destroying sameness he meets everywhere he tries to run. But never has such a listless, nearly inert, narrative been as visually enthralling as The Passenger—even as its story (such as it is) sputters out, the film retains a hypnotic allure, a cinematographic undertow that irresistibly draws you into its depthless interior, always threatening to drown you in the desert. It's all a bit ominous, though, and portends a hopeless end to things.
And then there's the simply stunning release, the consummation of both Locke's journey and that of the restless camera. As Locke flops down on a hotel bed to meet his end, the camera pans away and comes to rest gazing out through the barred hotel window. An apt metaphor, this prison that always awaits us at the end, no matter how much we try to escape it. Except, in a remarkable single tracking shot that must go on for a good eight or nine minutes, the camera begins a long slow glide towards the window, pushes through the bars and then makes a circuit of the barren town square just outside the hotel, as the girl wanders about confusedly, a young child throws stones at an old man, and cars arrive bearing the guerrillas, and then the wife and the police—and then it slowly curves back towards the hotel, back through the window, to find Locke dead on the bed. It's brauva filmmaking, as confident and exciting as the famous opening of Touch of Evil, and is probably the only way The Passenger could've satisfactorily answered its central conundrum in a way that wasn't totally despairing. In this shot, in this final release, this ultimate disappearance, this pushing out through the bars, Locke finally yields to the void he'd been trying to escape throughout the film, and only then does he find his salvation, closing the circle and vanishing into it—freedom, at last.