by Marty Gliserman
Cut, no. 8, 1975, pp. 1, 6-7
If CHINATOWN is at some level an expose of a ruling elite, THE PASSENGER is a partial critique of the bourgeois individual. In particular, it’s a critique of a middle class male’s lack of vision, his inability to communicate with those beyond his socio-cultural sphere, and finally of his false notions of rebellion. THE PASSENGER is often as politically and socially arid as the African desert landscape that we have ample time to look at. But it is neither as monumental as that landscape, nor as significant as the undercurrent of revolutionary events which the film lightly touches on and hints at. We watch a frustrated, entrapped male trying to escape some aspects of his middle class predicament and fall into a mysterious high adventure without understanding and without commitment. His escape undermines bourgeois principles and values, but it is not a reversal of them. Rather, it is a false contradiction. The actual revolution that takes place beneath the surface of the film or on its peripheries is mystified and unclear; we know only that it is deadly serious.
At a personal level, I found the film a bit tedious and frustrating. When I first saw Antonioni’s films—L'AVVENTURA, for example—ten years ago, I was afraid to say I was bored. Too many people I respected seemed deeply engaged in and thoughtful about the films, so I assumed there was much to be seen that I didn't see. Now, at the ripe age of 29, I can understand why and how Antonioni’s films make people think—he chooses and edits screenplays that become at become cinematic puzzles, intellectual detective stories.
I won't say that I was bored, but I would say that the film is boring in Erich Fromm’s sense of the word:
As with his literary counterpart, Thomas Pynchon, Antonioni concerns himself with the dead-end quality of certain human situations. The mystery story that Antonioni creates is filled with whys, whens, hows, whos, and what thens. When many of the questions are answered, a final one emerges in my mind—so what? I feel cheated that behind many of the painterly scenes and facades—abstract, rococo, and byzantine—are characters with trite and selfish motivations leading to meaningless death. I am annoyed that at the core of the film’s espionage is a long shot of Jack Nicholson and Maria Schneider naked in bed—it is a weak core. I am equally annoyed at Antonioni’s allusion and “answer” to Bertolucci’s LAST TANGO IN PARIS in THE PASSENGER’s final scene. The cinematic oedipal rivalry between Antonioni and Bertolucci over Maria Schneider—whether conscious or not—undermines and trivializes the film’s critique of the bourgeois individual.
Jack Nicholson plays David Locke, a TV journalist—he’s married, owns a nice house, and has an adopted child (who is never seen, and may be a fiction). When the film opens he is in Africa, as he has been previously, doing a series of interviews. In the film’s opening scenes he tries to find a camp of rebels—the United Liberation Front—but experiences difficulties. One guide will mysteriously disappear and another will mysteriously appear. He does not, cannot, talk with his guides; he does not understand how they are operating. He does not understand their fearful situation—he is an alien. There are various levels at which Nicholson’s alien quality emerges; some are symbolic and others more concrete.
His desert vehicle—a four-wheel drive, sky blue, Land Rover—best symbolizes his alien quality. The jeep’s very sound—its loud sounding starts, which Antonioni plays off against the desert’s noises—calls up countless images seen in films, documentaries and news-clips of U.S. forces in the deserts of Africa and the Near East. Antonioni focuses on the jeep’s intrusive nature. Its sounds break the wind songs of the desert. Its appearance is initially prepossessing—it moves rapidly with loud strength. But then it seems a bit awkward and harsh as it sits in front of the pastel adobe housing, and finally it becomes foolish looking as its wheels bury themselves in the sand. So this ideal vehicle for desert travel and conquest, laden with cans of water and gasoline, fails. At one point, before the jeep fails, a white camel with rider pass by, making what looks at first like jerky movements, but which must finally seem gracefully adapted. Nicholson’s Land Rover won't take him where he wants to go; it is not suitable for the unpaved desert. Nor is Nicholson suited to understanding the forces of the desert—the revolutionaries, the “legitimate” rulers, or the everyday people. Literally and metaphorically he cannot reach the rebel camp: he is stuck.
Alienness also emerges in the more concrete situations where communications are important. He is often unable, for example, to communicate at a “primitive” level because his guides cannot or will not speak English. Nicholson goes to one source after another hoping that he will be led to the rebel camp. His contacts only make hand signs—give me a cigarette, go out and follow me. His last guide speaks, but won't say anything—he tells Nicholson that the rebels will tell him everything when he gets there. But the last guide disappears without any verbal reasons given; we see what looks like an anti-rebel patrol.
There is an overriding problem that he “doesn't speak their language” even when both parties can speak English. We learn from Nicholson’s wife, who had been with him on other TV interviews in Africa, that she thinks Nicholson’s work is mediocre because he did not ask tough questions of those in power. He wouldn't contradict or push the official point of view (even when he knew there were political lies being told). He wouldn't go beyond the “rules” for interviewing political leaders. She says to him that while he puts himself in real situations, he has no real dialogue. Thus she paints him as a person who speaks one “language” (some kind of political line) which he allows to service him wherever he is, even when it is inappropriate. And she implies that he may not know where or when it is inappropriate.
To enhance his wife’s perceptions, we get to see some film clips of Nicholson’s interviews. We see them in the editing room where Nicholson’s producer, Martin Knight, is putting together a program on Nicholson’s work.
Nicholson’s work is what would be called objective reportage. In the interview scene with the president of an unspecified African nation, Nicholson allows the president to allay all fears about the rebels. He says they 9999 all fears about the rebels. He says they are no longer a threat, no longer a problem. His prospective British audience can rest easy. Although Nicholson knows this to be a political fabrication, he doesn't push further. He allows the official line to be pronounced, broadcast and documented. Another interview involves a shaman who may be connected to the rebel cause. Nicholson asks this man—a man who has been educated in France and Yugoslavia—why he still practices his ritual arts, doesn't he feel them to be fraudulent. The shaman (who is identified as Daisy, I think, because he is visually associated with a flower pot of African daisies in this scene) is mute for some time. He then explains that Nicholson simply wouldn't understand anything that he might say. He says that Nicholson’s questions reveal more about the reporter than the shaman’s own answers would reveal about that man. Nicholson’s frame of reference is too narrow to hear another language. Daisy gets up and turns the camera around, and we see an embarrassed Nicholson. Now we can begin the interview, Daisy says.
In some respects Nicholson recognizes his failure as a reporter and a person. He finds a way of escaping his previous life by taking on another identity, one which unbeknownst to him, at least at first, is very dangerous, and one which he cannot incorporate into his own self. In fact, the man whose identity he takes on was a man who had commitments, something which Nicholson doesn't seem to be able to have and hold. By the film’s end Nicholson has not simply escaped his identity, he has lost it in toto. Existentially and literally—he is dead; his wife says she never knew him.
The change of identity occurs in a far away hotel where Nicholson is staying in the African desert. In the small hotel is a person who says he is a businessman but who is, in fact, a gunrunner for the rebels. The gunrunner dies of a heart attack and Nicholson discovers that man’s body upon returning from his fruitless search. The man—David Robertson—happens to look like Nicholson, who switches passport pictures, informs the hotel keeper that Locke (Nicholson) is dead, and thus takes on his new identity. Locke’s wife and employer are informed of Locke’s death. It is some time before his wife Daisy receives his belongings and passport, begins to get suspicious of his death—at which point she begins looking for Robertson because she knows he was in the same hotel as Locke and she hopes he might have something to tell her.
In any event, Nicholson is free, as it were, from his bourgeois entrapments—wife, child, house, and job. He begins to find out about Robertson’s life and business. He begins a quest by attempting to follow Robertson’s appointment book. Like a Pynchon novel the film is filled with hints and clues but no clear map. Nicholson, now a runner of guns who doesn't know it, visits various places specified in Robertson’s appointment book, and looks without much success for the people Robertson was presumably to meet. Outside of the appointment book and visa, Nicholson has little to go on, but he does have one good lead—the #58 key to a locker in the Munich airport. The locker contains a slim black attaché case containing an invoice for and diagrams of a variety of guns.
Two men, a black man and a white one, notice him at the airport and (we discover) follow him. They make contact with him at a chapel (although if Nicholson were who he was supposed to be, he would have met them at the airport). In the chapel, following a marriage ceremony, the three men finalize a gun sale and make some future arrangements—all under the auspices of god? Nicholson ad libs as best he can. There is a moment of comedy when the black man says to say hello to Daisy, and Nicholson in the comic tradition of awkward situations says, “Wha?” The black man repeats his request and Nicholson, again awkwardly, smiles (sort of), nods, and says, “O, yes.” But the comedy of the interpersonal situation, and the playfulness of the marriage ceremony juxtaposed to the gun sale, is undercut by something else the black man says. He tells Nicholson that he has heard that Nicholson is different from the others—other whites, other gunrunners—because he cares about the cause. Nicholson, of course, knows very little about the cause; it is implied that he would not understand it if it were explained. It is also implied (by his wife) that his politics would not lead him to being sympathetic with it. And finally, he is surely not committed to it. The deal is completed, and now Nicholson has, at least, some money—with which he will buy a car, which, like his Land Rover, will fail him; he can't get where he’s going.
Nicholson may be free, but he’s in trouble. His wife becomes suspicious and wants to contact Robertson. She tells the head of the African embassy in London who she is looking for. It turns out, the ambassador knows who Robertson is and is also looking for him. Eventually, everyone finds Robertson. So, while Nicholson jets it from Munich to Palermo tracking down elusive clues, others are trying to track him down—some want to talk with him, others want to kill him.
It is in the limbo between Nicholson’s first and only contact with Robertson’s network, and his meeting with death that he encounters the ever sweet and willing Maria Schneider, who plays a nameless, curly haired student of architecture. She is a student from France whom we first see on a park bench in a posh residential section of London—which is Nicholson’s first stop. It is never clear what she is doing in London close to where the original Robertson may have scheduled an appointment. Is she a spy? A counterspy? Is it just happenstance? She reappears in Palermo where Nicholson meets her, and asks a favor of this charming stranger. They become a couple until the end. (He wants her to remove his luggage from the Hotel Orient. He has been tracked down to that hotel by his wife’s emissary—Martin Knight—who discovers Nicholson’s whereabouts through the Avis agency.) In many respects Maria Schneider is the payoff for all of Nicholson’s machinations—that is, what he really wanted out of life was a lovely “free” woman. So, the adventure, the great escape routine, pays off—just as we might have fantasized. Leave your wife, quit your job, go to Palermo, and find your dreams. The moment one waits for arrives, even in this PG rated film. A long shot takes us into the bedroom in a lovely Spanish hotel, and we see the ménage à deux. Very touching.
Schneider’s portrait is about as vicious as Nicholson’s in terms of sex roles. She is a solidly middle-upper middle class student, roaming around the world, who easily picks up and goes off with Nicholson (god knows where) and who is chiefly interested in the “fact” that he is a gunrunner—revolutions titillate her. The cause itself doesn't seem to be significant, but the adventure is exciting. “Doing something exciting and forbidden in secret” is a psychological association with the action. And that association leads to the thought that the revolution is trivialized to an anarchic sexual encounter.
At the formal aesthetic level, the coupling scene completes the comic arc of the circle; Nicholson has extricated himself from the oppressiveness of his bourgeois lifestyle, he has defeated the old order by leaving his wife, job and past failures behind him. He’s on a new exciting adventure; he’s got a lovely spontaneous (if insipid) woman. At the ideological level, however, he is at his lowest point. The revolution becomes merely a dangerous venture. He becomes an interesting male because he is dealing with what is dangerous (even though his dealing is at best second hand). At the moment of coupling both of them are alienated furthest from the cause that brings them together. They triumph over bourgeois rules, but they defeat the momentum of the revolution. Nicholson is thus a portrait of false contradiction: his rebellion against the bourgeoisie is a bourgeois rebellion. It is not the antithesis, or the great refusal.
The film’s end brings everyone concerned together at the Hotel de la Gloria—wife, employer, Schneider, Nicholson, the police, the counterrevolutionary assassins. The hotel is one of the rendezvous places mentioned in Robertson’s appointment book, thus Nicholson goes there to see what he can see. Schneider is there when he arrives even though he told her to meet him in three days in Tangiers. The assassins are on Nicholson’s tracks since they think he is Robertson; they may have learned about the rendezvous from Nicholson’s first contacts with the rebel agents. This is possible because the assassins abducted one of those agents shortly after the gun deal was closed. Finally, Nicholson’s wife and employer are there to see if they can talk to Robertson, whom the local police are looking for.
Nicholson lies down to rest and tells Schneider to go outside. The assassins pull up in a white Citroen. The white man takes Schneider aside and out of the way while the black man goes in to do his work. They leave; Nicholson’s wife and employer arrive with the police. They enter Nicholson’s room to find a dead man. His wife says that she does not recognize him—I never knew him, she says. But Maria Schneider says, yes, that she knew him. This last scene reverses the final sequence of THE LAST TANGO IN PARIS in which Schneider adamantly denies out loud (as a rehearsal for what she plans to tell the police) that she does not know this man, that she does not know his name. She claims that he followed her to the apartment, etc. The cinematic joke between Antonioni and Bertolucci is amusing, but it reduces and undermines important realities. Antonioni seems to be smirking while he says to Bertolucci, “Well, my hero is dead, too (and his wife doesn't recognize him), but the woman he ‘picks up’ (the very same woman that you yourself chose) recognizes him.”
But whatever annoyances the film brings on, there is one progressive statement that it brings forth: to deny the past is to negate the future, the potential. Nicholson’s attempt to evade the past is something he talks about before he does it—he taped a conversation with Robertson before Robertson died. When we listen to the tape, we hear Nicholson wonder out loud why one can't just forget the past, throw it all away. The film is almost an answer to that. Revolution is based in history, not in the denial of it. The failure to know and understand history, the failure to deal with and confront it, leads to impotent escapism and in Nicholson’s case, to death. Nicholson wants to forget his own past; the best he can do is stumble. That his wife fails to recognize him (however trite it may seem) and that the assassins “recognize” him as Robertson, point to Nicholson’s success in denying his past. But finally, it is his death, like Brando’s in LAST TANGO, that speaks most forcefully to the futility of denying personal context and history.