Essentials #16: THE PASSENGER (1975)

Jack Nicholson stars in a Michelangelo Antonioni film about identity and existential ennui. THE PASSENGER appeals to the traveler in all of us and contains one of the most breathtaking finales to a film I have ever seen.

If you’re new to the films of Antonioni, start here.

The Girl: Who are you?
David Locke: I used to be someone else, but I traded him in. Uh, what about you?
The Girl: Well, I’m in Barcelona. I’m talking with someone who is somebody else…

Have you ever been so bored with life that you long to leave it? Have you ever wished you could have a different identity? What if you just left everything — friends, family, work, etc — and went to a far place where no one knows who you or where you are?

Sounds intriguing, no? Whether we’ll admit it or not, most of us have said ‘YES’ to these questions before reason took over. It’s human nature to be bored. What an unsettling thought that the grass will always be greener on the other side. Traveling only deepens this desire because we see the lives that we cannot have.

These must have been the same thoughts the lead character, David Locke (NICHOLSON) had before he made the switch to someone else’s life.

Set in war-torn Central Africa, disillusioned journalist David Locke (JACK NICHOLSON) assumes the identity of a businessman who happens to be an arms dealer in the war he’s covering.

THE PASSENGER follows a day in the life of one person assuming another person’s life.

This is the anti-plot of THE PASSENGER. And I say anti-plot because the movie is far from a movie about whether the killer is the housemaid or Colonel Mustard. It’s not a character study either. If the film is neither plot nor character, you might ask: what kind of film is it?

To those unfamiliar with Michelangelo Antonioni, he makes films about ideas. People, plot, and other cinematic tricks are all a piece of the idea he wants to convey. Antonioni wants you to fill in the gaps, the motivations, and its meaning (or lack thereof). This might be frustrating to a viewer because his films can appear artsy and aimless. But stick around and really watch his films [uninterrupted]. They are truly unique and stylistically, a complete 180 from our current generation of cut-to-a-close-up-every-two-second Hollywood style of filmmaking.

What I wrote sounds pretentious but I assure you Antonioni is an important filmmaker to check out. If you give his work a chance, you might even discover a new way of seeing film that you never thought possible. Even though it’s been over a century, we still do not know what cinema is.

I recommend all of the films I’ve seen of his. IL GRIDO, LA NOTTE, and BLOW-UP (his most famous, which deals with the notion of perception and reality), but I’d start with THE PASSENGER. All of his films meander in your head and linger with you like one of those deep thoughts you get on a long walk.

That’s the great thing about art in general and what I think every artist should be doing. Exposing yourself to the spectrum of the great, awful, conventional, and unconventional. You may not always be affected but somehow, it has the capacity to unlock buried intuitions and inspire.

The original title of this film is Professione: Reporter but was changed to THE PASSENGER for English-speaking audiences. I like the English title better. It fits the philosophical theme of the film more.

Without spoiling much, Locke (as Robertson) encounters a young student only referred to as THE GIRL (Maria Schneider, best known as Jeanne opposite Marlon Brando in LAST TANGO IN PARIS). She’s never named in the film probably to go along with the theme of identity. That’s another great philosophical question: What is identity?

What does it mean to have one? Do our family, friends, occupation, and interests make up who we are as a person? If we lost all of those attributes, are we no longer that person?

Regarding the title of the film, perhaps Antonioni is claiming that identity is something we make up. An illusion created by our possessions and relationships. Locke is riding in someone else’s life as Robertson. The Girl is attracted to Robertson, not the journalist Locke, since she is unaware of his existence. At least enough so to go along with him. Perhaps Antonioni is saying that we are all “passengers” in the sense that we create the idea of who we are and “ride along” with that idea.

I think about this movie a lot when I travel. I tend to get lost in the fantasy that I could drift my way through life, forge temporary relationships in favor of exploring as much of the world as I can, all without care. Locke experiences the human desire of seeing life from another person’s eyes.

A great scene is when Nicholson is driving the car and THE GIRL asks: “What are you running from?” He replies, “Turn your back to the front seat.”

Then it cuts to a shot of the fleeting background. Beautiful. Subtle moments like that are why I enjoy Antonioni’s work.

David Locke: I know a man who was blind. When he was nearly 40 years old, he had an operation and regained his sight.
The Girl: How was it like?
David Locke: 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.

The world can be an ugly and horrid place, but there are beautiful things in it . Unlike the blind man in the story that Locke recounts, you have to keep looking.

And the final sequence of THE PASSENGER is absolutely breathtaking. It’s one of those endings where you feel its cathartic release and is truly cinematic in nature.

This is part of an ongoing series where I will be doing movie reviews from my original ESSENTIALS Film List.