Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Passenger (film review)

The Passenger, directed by Michelangelo Antonioni and starring Jack Nicholson, is a captivating portrait of a reporter who impulsively trades places with a dead man. What kind of person would do such a thing, and why? And will he get away with it?

I don’t want to spoil the film for you, but I will quote the Netflix plot synopsis: “Disenchanted with his life, Locke [a reporter covering an insurrection in North Africa]…assumes the dead man’s identity, not knowing that he was a gunrunner for the insurgents. By the time Locke realizes that he’s put himself in grave danger, it may be too late.”

The Passenger expresses so well many of the themes that are important to Antonioni, and they recur in his films over and over. I will explore some of these themes here, but first some background. Antonioni directed 37 films, of which I have now seen 8; my favorite ones are noted with an asterisk:

Cronaca di un amore (Story of a Love Affair), 1950 (his 12th film, but the first full-length one)
*L’Avventura (The Adventure), 1960 (first in the so-called Trilogy) (Criterion Collection; commentary by film critic Gene Youngblood)
La Notte (The Night), 1961 (second in the Trilogy)
*L’Eclisse (Eclipse), 1962 (third in the Trilogy) (also in the Criterion Collection)
*Il Deserto Rosso (Red Desert), 1964 (some sources say this belongs in the “Trilogy” instead of La Notte, which I can see; and some say those four films make up a Tetrology)
*Blow-Up, 1966 (Antonioni’s first English-language film)
Zabriskie Point, 1970 (Antonioni’s first U.S. film)
*The Passenger, 1975

1. The first common theme is pursuit. In L’Avventura, a young woman disappears from an uninhabited island while there on holiday with friends. Her best friend (played by Monica Vitti) and her fianc├ę (Gabriele Ferzetti) search for her, and for the rest of the film are seen travelling around Italy chasing after clues and falling in love. In Blow-Up (Antonioni’s first English-language film), a photographer (David Hemmings) tries to solve a murder that he thinks he has captured evidence of in his photographs. In The Passenger, David Locke (Nicholson) is being pursued by many different people and organizations, but is far from figuring out who/what they all are. (As a reporter he’s praised for being very observant, but it turns out he’s actually not very smart.)

2. The second theme that Antonioni explores in The Passenger is trust and its corollary, betrayal. These themes, as expressed through romantic relationships, are essential to nearly every Antonioni film I have seen, though in none so prominently as in The Passenger. (Like I said, Locke is very observant but not actually very smart…)

3. The third prominent theme in The Passenger is identity. David Locke assumes the identity of the dead man, David Robertson. He takes up with a young woman whose name is never given; she is listed in the film credits simply as “Girl.” (She is played by Maria Schneider, who had starred in Last Tango in Paris just 3 years earlier.) The fact that we never know her name underlines the fact that we have no idea who she is; we know nothing about her, and neither does Locke. She says she is an architecture student. Locke trusts her implicitly, but it’s not clear why; because of his trust for her, it’s easy for the viewer to be lulled into trusting her too.

4. Fourth: observation, the camera, the window, the gaze. This complex of issues permeates all of Antonioni’s films, and it’s part of what makes them so amazing. They become visual puzzles. In The Passenger Locke’s character is said to be observant, but as viewers WE need to pay close attention too. Antonioni demands a lot from the viewer, which is part of what makes his films so compelling. He thus thematizes the role of film director (the one controlling the gaze of the camera) IN the film’s structure and its narrative. David Locke in The Passenger is a television correspondent, and as such, he’s behind the camera, interviewing subjects, all the time. In one scene, the subject (an African “medicine man”) takes hold of the camera and turns it on Locke; the loss of control clearly discomfits Locke. But Locke is not the first Antonioni protagonist who works with a camera: Thomas (the Hemmings character) in Blow-Up is a photographer, and photography is central to the plot of that film.

In The Passenger, Antonioni at times frustrates our desire to observe and, hence, our desire to know. People and situations are often filmed through a window, and during the climactic final sequence, the camera focuses on what's happening outside the Hotel de la Gloria (through Locke's window) rather than the drama that is -- silently -- occurring within. An earlier crucial scene is filmed through water (a public fountain) so that we can’t be sure exactly what has happened; one man is seized in a restaurant by a group of four men, but what happened to his companion? Why wasn’t he seized? Was he complicit in the capture?

Unlike a lot of directors, Antonioni does not call attention to every detail; it’s easy to miss some of his clues. And a lot of questions go unanswered, and mysteries are never solved. In L’Avventura the girl who goes missing (Anna) is never found, and no explanation is ever given for her disappearance. In The Passenger, we can never fit all the puzzle pieces together.

Much of the dialogue is about seeing; Locke repeatedly asks the girl, as she looks out the window, "what can you see? what can you see now?" And he tells her this story:
I knew a man who was blind. When he was nearly 40 years old he had an operation and regained his sight….At first he was elated, really high—faces, colors, landscapes. But then everything began to change. The world was much poorer than he had imagined. Noone had ever told him how much dirt there was, how much ugliness. He noticed ugliness everywhere. When he was blind, he used to cross the street alone with a stick. After he regained his sight, he became afraid, he began to live in darkness, he never left his room. After three years he killed himself.”

5. The fifth theme that intrigues me in Antonioni’s work is architecture. He juxtaposes historically “important” buildings with the ugly modern architectural landscape of Europe (Italy in L’Avventura, Spain in The Passenger). The main male character in L'Avventura is an architect; the girl in The Passenger says she's an architecture student. (Not to mention that she meets Locke in a building designed by Antoni Gaudi.) I think it has a lot to do with being Italian, surrounded by "great" architecture from the past and seeing the rapid transformation of the country in the post-war period. This really merits its own separate blog entry.
(Note: I taught L'Avventura in my "Architecture in Film" course two years ago, and was disappointed that students didn't like it very much, for a number of reasons. One, they generally don't like any foreign-language films; two, Antonioni demands so much from the viewer in terms of interpretation -- for people who think being asked to read subtitles is a burden, this is evidently beyond the pale! Three, his pacing is much more slow and deliberate than the kinds of American, Hollywood films they're used to watching.)

The Passenger is a must-see film (as are L’Avventura and Blow-Up). (Red Desert is great, but not yet released on DVD so harder to get a hold of). I’ve never described myself as a Jack Nicholson fan, but I never cease to be amazed by his talent as an actor (despite some films I’ve hated, including As Good As It Gets and The Witches of Eastwick). As my husband put it recently, “there’s really noone else like him.”
I have to say, too, that there's noone else like Antonioni. I just love his subtlety and his sense of understatement. In The Passenger, there's virtually no dialogue in the first 20 minutes, and after that it builds only gradually for another 20 minutes. His films are so utterly visual, yet the characters are incredibly nuanced psychologically.

SPOILER ALERT…Continue reading at your own risk

If you haven’t seen The Passenger, I strongly suggest you watch it BEFORE you read what follows, as I would hate to ruin what is surely one of the great pleasures of the film, i.e., figuring it out for yourself. (If you have Netflix you can watch it instantly online.)

I keep referring to Locke as very observant but not very smart, because he trusts the Maria Schneider character and never for a minute suspects her motives. This despite the fact that he saw her in London, before running into her in Barcelona. When he tells her that he believes in coincidences, it’s actually like Antonioni waving a big red flag that says “Don’t believe in coincidences! There’s no such thing!” Of course, the fact that this gorgeous woman 15 years his junior is attaching herself to him is one explanation for his failure to question her, but another factor is his own short-sightedness. On first viewing, one might not suspect her of being a spy, or of being an accomplice in his murder; but after the film’s conclusion it’s hard not to think that she was either working for the African government that was looking for Robertson, for a European government, or for the insurgents. But she seems to have gone even farther than that, persuading Locke to stick with the plan he unwittingly got himself into. But even that’s not entirely clear. Doesn’t she believe that he’s not actually Robertson? Why doesn’t that matter to her?
And on the subject of identity: Locke's wife, Rachel, finally catches up with him at the ironically named Hotel de la Gloria, just moments after he's been killed. When asked if she recognizes him, she says, "I never knew him." Surely she recognizes that this man who went by the name Robertson WAS her husband; her statement connotes a much more fundamental lack of knowledge, rather than a lack of recognition.

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