Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1975 film The Passenger — being given a new lease on theatrical life by star Jack Nicholson — is probably more important as a representative of its time than as a film in its own right.
Though it played at this past year’s Asheville Film Festival, I missed it owing to a hectic schedule and the fact that Ken Russell, faced with the prospect of seeing it, made a face suggestive of an encounter with a quantity of very ripe cheese. Not being a major admirer of the Antonioni films I’d seen, I didn’t press the issue. Having now seen it, I understand its great reputation as well as his reaction — and I find myself in accord with both. At bottom, it’s a somewhat ponderous — and certainly pretentious — work that’s not a whole lot more than a pulp thriller with a fit of existential angst.
Nicholson plays documentary filmmaker David Locke, who — like all Antonioni characters — suffers from terminal ennui. Locke is stuck in the African desert working on a film that holds no interest for him (his producer calls it “detached objectivity”). So when the only other occupant of his hotel (future film producer Chuck Mulvell) hands in his dinner pail, Locke decides to switch places with the dead man and take over his life. Since the people who run the hotel don’t pay any attention to their guests, the switch easy enough to pull off with a little judicious exchanging of passport photos.
The idea, however, might not be an especially safe one, since it turns out that the dead man was a gun runner — something Locke only discovers when he decides to keep one of his new incarnation’s appointments. At the same time, his semi-estranged wife (Jenny Runacre) and his producer (Ian Hendry) start trying to put events together — in part for a documentary on Locke’s life — and questions start to arise that suggest that the man who was at the hotel with him might possibly tell them something. Since Locke is now masquerading as that other man, such a meeting is out of the question and Locke goes on the run with the aid of an apparently nameless girl (Maria Schneider). Meanwhile, others may be after him as well.
The plot is inconsequential in most respects, since the film is about the nature of identity and the inevitability of what happens in life. There are some delicious ironies. In becoming a gun-runner (a left-leaning, idealistic gun-runner, mind you), Locke is now an active participant in the war he had been covering with “detached objectivity” — a war that the established powers had told him didn’t exist. He has now done the very things he never meant to do — pick a side and have a purpose. Of course, since this is Antonioni, the message seems to be that following through on somebody else’s idealism is preferable to merely existing as one’s self.
Early on, Locke comments that he doesn’t like landscapes, that he prefers people, but he lives in a filmic world that is nearly all landscapes, and people are few and far between — and the few he meets he never seems to really connect with. How seriously one chooses to take any of this is up to the individual. Is it profound or simply self-important twaddle? You decide.
But the film is a fascinating artifact of the last gasp of a kind of international cinema that more or less ended the same year it came out. Indeed, The Passenger‘s slow impenetrability may have expedited its death. It’s hard to imagine now, but the period from 1965 through 1975 saw the lines between popular film and “art” film blur to a point where they were almost nonexistent. Foreign movies were not uncommon in regular venues. Actors shuttled back and forth from country to country. Other countries’ directors made English language films without — as a rule — having to become Hollywoodized. Filmmakers rather than studios were calling the shots and suddenly “art” wasn’t a dirty word. Inevitably, it came crashing down, but it created some pretty vibrant movies while it lasted — movies that no major studio would touch today.
Put The Passenger in that context and it becomes as much a valuable time capsule as anything else. It’s very much a part of its era — from its trendy director to its hip star to its deliberate vagueness to its basic pop culture underpinnings that feed on the very things it purports to be superior to. There’s a very telling — very funny — scene where Nicholson suggests to Maria Schneider things that he might become. She dismisses one as “too obvious,” another as “too romantic,” and the third — becoming a gun runner — as “too fantastic.”
Deliberately or not, Antonioni has worked what is essentially a story conference for the film he’s making into the film’s very fabric. Either way it’s a brilliant touch in a movie that’s certainly worth a look on the big screen while the chance is available. Rated PG-13 for some violence, nudity and language.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke