Traveling Ephemera: On Michelangelo Antonioni’s “The Passenger” (1975)

A stylized shot of Michelangelo Antonioni's "The Passenger", depicting Jack Nicholson's and Maria Schneider's characters looking at each other in a car.

Michelangelo Antonioni is a director whose characters, more or less, travel within an assorted ephemera. Life unfolds in the moment and they are not left pondering the consequences. Humans are presented as a small species—lost and without a higher purpose. As example, in L’Avventura, a woman goes missing on an island only to then have her friends abandon her search midway through the film. We never see her again, and presumably neither do they, but in those moments of searching, her friends manage to seek a destination beyond their affluent lives. However, upon leaving the island, they ultimately return to their shallow endeavors. Likewise, in La Notte, which takes place over a single night, socialites breeze in and out of rooms while at a party as the evening keeps them contained. Over time, the night consumes, and it becomes the very thing that holds them in—unending and aimless. Once daylight arrives, all has gone.

The Passenger is a film where one’s identity is easily replaced by another. Have you ever wondered what it might be like to travel as someone else, and in that travel become someone else? How the story unfolds is this: David Locke (Jack Nicholson) is a reporter who is stuck in a remote town in Africa, wishing to create a political documentary. In the room across from him is Mr. Robertson (Charles Mulvehill), a man who says he has no close friends or family. The two chat in flashback after Locke uncovers Robertson’s dead body. Yet rather than inform the hotel staff that the man in the next room is dead, Locke drags the corpse across the hall and into his room. Exchanging passport photos, he assumes Robertson’s identity. Why he is willing to assume his life we don’t know, other than perhaps a plane ticket out? By remaining a short-term stranger to everyone around him, Locke can pull it off.

Later, Locke encounters his obituary in a newspaper, wherein the bigness of the world seems to have known him but in smallness he remains anonymous. When he picks up a young, nameless girl (Maria Schneider), she asks him what he is running away from. He answers by telling her to turn her back from the front of their moving car. Only the open road remains behind them. And who is the Passenger? Is it the unnamed girl who accompanies him? Or is it he who now navigates through the life of another? The film isn’t clear on this, and nor does it matter. Antonioni prefers to not offer reasons for his characters’ motives. Instead, he prefers they go seeking, seeking. Whether they find anything is irrelevant. Very often, their direction yields nothing. These characters are aimless, despite having careers and spouses in the background. Their pasts and futures are gone—all that remains is the present, which makes it easy for someone to replace another. When there is no one to return to, what then?

In a particularly memorable scene, Locke describes what happened when a blind man acquired the ability to see:

At first he was elated…really high. Faces…colors…landscapes. But then everything began to change. The world was much poorer than he imagined. No one 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.

Is vision another type of finding that leads to a fearful, new location? Or is blindness a way to shield one’s self from the overwhelming detail of dirt and feeling? Detail accompanies specifics, appointments, and obligations. The cracks in the world can now be seen. Gone goes the nebulous spontaneity. Instead, one is left with planning, structure, and hierarchy.

Near the end of The Passenger, Locke passes out in a bed as the camera pulls away. The humans within the frame appear as small and helpless as the dust. Some have suggested that Locke dies, but I see no evidence of this. Rather, Antonioni leaves this unanswered. However, about Locke, Roger Ebert notes, ‘He is not running away, or toward. He is simply in motion. Many of the shots suggest people with time on their hands in empty cities. The girl wants to invest his movements with importance, wants him to be someone and want something.’

Is disappearance a necessity or merely a matter of convenience? (One scene in particular captures Locke and the girl lazing beneath an orange tree—a scene that must have influenced Nuri Bilge Ceylan.) Eventually, Locke’s motion stops and he has been found. His wife, who has been searching for him throughout this time, says she does not know him. So what is the point of all this? As with his characters, Antonioni never spoon-feeds us the answers. They and their external movements are enough—and intimacy is something far off and distant (such as the non-existent sex scene between Locke and the girl, where we only see them waking afterwards, and from a distance). Like in his film Red Desert, individuals in The Passenger move about mechanically, as if without feeling. Even Maria Schneider’s acting comes off stiff and affected, an attribute that ironically works for this film’s seeming spontaneity.

I once overheard several salesmen discussing a colleague’s decision to up and quit his job. ‘Says he wants more freedom,’ one said. ‘What is freedom without steady pay and something to do each day?’ another asked. ‘Give him six months and he will be back.’ I suppose the same could be applied to this film. When one remains a passenger, he or she is not in command. Some other force, be it an event or job, or person, remains in charge. There is no return. Should we expect a return? Life becomes motion without resolution. To travel or to still? Humans in motion will eventually cease.

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