FILM REVIEW: The Passenger (1975)

The Passenger (USA, 1975)
Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni

Starring Jack Nicholson, Maria Schneider, Jenny Runacre, Ian Hendry

There is an argument put forward by film theorists that today's audiences are incapable of appreciating older films. The saturation of our culture with music videos and the internet creates a natural impatience, which carries over into cinema through increasingly rapid editing and flashier cinematography. This causes the simplification of imagery and the symbols which lie behind them, and the whole process begins feeding on itself until we are all infantilised.Notwithstanding its inherent arrogance towards the cinema-going public, this theory is flawed because it is based upon a nostalgic assumption about older films. Contrary to its assumptions, potentially great films are often reduced to being merely good or very good, not by shortcomings in their audience but in the difficult attitude they take towards presenting their ideas. The Passenger is a typical example, being a revered classic which is indeed very good, but whose flaws are easy to acknowledge and prevent it from ever being great.The Passenger is Michelangelo Antonioni's third and final feature in the English language, the others being Blow-Up and Zabriskie Point. Like many of his films, it explores the issue of alienation, specifically of characters feeling isolated and out of place in the world around them. But where Zabriskie Point attempts this analysis with an entire generation, embodied by the two students who make love in the desert, The Passenger is a lot more focussed, more personal and ultimately more successful.The film explores the extent to which a single act or idea can alter an individual's life, using the trading of identities as a means to explore existential disillusionment. When we first meet David Locke, expertly played by Jack Nicholson, he is bored of his life, bored of his work and desperate to escape to somewhere where no-one can find him. He trades identities with the dead man in the next room believing that he can start his life over, without any baggage or responsibilities: for once he can live the way he wants, for as long as he wants.

Having taken on this mantle, and changed from Locke to Robertson, our leading man quickly finds himself in dangerous circumstances worthy of any thriller. The scene in the church, in which Nicholson bluffs his way through a meeting with the men he is supplying with arms, is reminiscent of Richard Hannay during the political meeting in The 39 Steps. Both characters have to think on their feet to convince the world that they are someone else, making all decisions and giving all answers based purely on impulse and guesswork.But unlike John Buchan's novel, or any of the film versions that followed, the thrills in The Passenger are much more internalised. There is a thriller-like plot, both in Locke's new identity as a gun runner and in the efforts of his director and wife to track him down. But these elements have to take equal billing to the existential thrust of the film, which is interested in identity and the internalised conflicts of the central character. The film manages to balance the two very well, giving us enough moments of jeopardy and near-misses to keep the less patient among us interested.The central idea of The Passenger is that all men (and possibly women) are bound by the same doubts, fears and anxieties. Assuming a new identity is not a feasible means to escape from oneself, no matter how methodically one goes about it. On the one hand, 'Robertson' finds himself bound to supply guns which he cannot possibly deliver; the second he takes the down-payment in the church, he becomes a wanted man. On the other hand, elements of Locke in his previous life begin to encroach, as his initial enthusiasm begins to give way to melancholy, cynicism, and finally an all-encompassing sense of futility.

The key scene in The Passenger comes in the last ten minutes, where Locke and The Girl are in hiding in a hotel, knowing full well that the former will soon be killed. Locke relates a story of a blind man who regains his sight: the man was initially elated, but this vision exposed him to the horrors of the world which he could previously only imagine, and he ended up a recluse who committed suicide. This is the nub of the film: what seems like a chance to escape the world and see it with new eyes only leads to greater suffering. Ultimately all we can do is accept our status as passengers, unable to influence the mechanics of this world and fully mindful that whatever we do, death will always catch up with us.This outlook is furthered by Antonioni's direction, which highlights how small and helpless the characters are. Whether they are crawling through the desert or in the busy streets of an inner city, the central characters are presented from a distance, insignificant in the face of all around them. Even in its most romantic moment, when it appears that Locke and the girl have made love, the camera keeps its distance, peering through the doorway when other directors would have taken us up close and personal. The film is beautifully shot with washed-out colours and a series of interesting camera angle.The most famous of these is the penultimate scene, a seven-minute tracking shot which is both a technical showcase (predating the Steadicam) and a poetic means to bring the story to a close. As Locke lights up a cigarette and lies down on the bed, the camera moves slowly forward through the bars of the window, out into the square, follows the movements of several characters before turning around and drifting back in to find Locke dead. This is Locke's soul taking flight, finally escaping from this world into something new, and taking one last look at what he is leaving behind.

For all its virtues, The Passenger is not without its faults. Even to those familiar with Antonioni's style, or more general trends in European filmmaking, the film is very, very slow and around half an hour too long. Because the emphasis is so much on emotion rather than plot, its story could have been handled in 90 minutes without losing any impact, whether visually or emotionally. Antonioni's languorous shooting style with long slow takes and almost no soundtrack can seem pretentious on occasion, albeit not so much that we lose all interest in what is happening.
The other problem with The Passenger is the sense of distance involved. Just as, in the words of David Lynch, the artist needn't suffer to show suffering, so the audience shouldn't necessary be alienated during a film about alienation. Like the work of Tom Kalin, The Passenger keeps its audience at arms' length, not out of coyness about its subject matter, but because that seems the natural way to tell the story. And as with Swoon or Savage Grace, this decision may be the right one, but it makes connecting with the characters more difficult, putting the entire story in jeopardy.The Passenger is an intriguing and haunting work whose influence on modern cinema continues, as seen by its substantial presence in Anton Corbijn's The American. Jack Nicholson is on good form, albeit not quite as good as in Chinatown, and the film is recommended viewing for anyone interested in European cinema. For all its faults and bits that drag, there is a slow-burning profundity to it, which keeps it an enticing and memorable experience for generations to come.

Rating: 4/5

Verdict: A haunting and intriguing slow-burner


Post a Comment