“I used to be someone else, but I traded him in.”
In Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book, Walker Percy posits that although modern man understands the world around him better than ever, his failure to understand himself renders him desperate to escape himself. Percy cites modern fiction’s common use of amnesia as a plot device as an instance of this phenomenon: “He (or she) finds himself in a strange place, having forgotten his old place, his family, friends, business. He begins a new life in a new place with a new girlfriend, a new job. After a while in his new life he begins to receive clues about his old life. A stranger stops him in the streets and calls him by a strange name…” Does amnesia recur in soap operas because “the character in the soap opera is sick and tired of himself and his life and wants a change”? Is the writer of the soap opera sick and tired of the character? Maybe the writer is sick and tired of himself, or maybe the moviegoers and television viewers are sick and tired of themselves. Or perhaps the allure of a fresh start is rooted in a deeper, more widespread unease. Perhaps, Percy suggests, “The times are such that everyday life for everybody is more or less intolerable and one is better off wiping out the past and starting anew.”
From a cursory overview of his filmography, one could certainly conclude that Michelangelo Antonioni sympathizes with this sentiment. The Italian auteur’s postwar films traffic heavily in malaise, loneliness, and existential despair in the face of a new world that has cast aside old things without offering substantial alternatives. Indeed, much of Antonioni’s cinema is preoccupied with absences – two friends missing a third; a place devoid of life, abandoned by the two former lovers who used to spend time there; a murder mystery where the corpse vanishes, if it ever existed at all. His camera frequently frames characters as small or insignificant: people are dwarfed by the clean, inhuman lines of modern architecture, or wander among the ruins of an ancient world long forgotten by society. Oppressed by ennui and discontentment, they cannot reach out and connect to each other. They are surrounded by, or perhaps adrift in, unbearable emptiness. Modernity is a limbo, unmoored from any kind of permanence, living in perpetual free fall. Yet The Passenger, coming off the heels of these studies of alienation, takes a somewhat different tack. Antonioni’s distrust of modern culture is evident, but this film is not primarily a critique. It is not chiefly a lament over the absence of meaning, but a search for its presence, fired with a quiet longing. It would perhaps be too optimistic to describe the film as hopeful, but neither would it be quite accurate to deem it hopeless.
A man (Jack Nicholson) in a foreign country finds that one of his fellow travelers has died. He looks reasonably similar to the other man and takes his place. As he embarks on his new life, he is pursued by his own past, and by that of the other man. The Passenger does not revolve around amnesia, but the movements of its central plotline stem from the same underlying desire to escape oneself: Percy suggests, “The source of pleasure for the moviegoer is not the amnesia but the certified and risk-free license to leave the old self behind and enter upon a new life.” The story is a simple one, following many of the signposts Percy describes, though there is a key difference. The amnesiac does not remember his old life. The man who takes another’s identity remembers his own old life, but not that of his new self. These sound like the makings of a soap-operatic melodrama – or, when we discover the other man was an arms dealer, a Bourne-style suspense thriller – but The Passenger is neither. It is a spare, serene film, meditatively paced, with little action to speak of, and little dialogue spoken, for that matter. Although the story depicted cannot literally take place in a day, the film moves from morning to evening, as if it is the story of one single day. Our “hero” travels through spaces trying to be someone he is not, or perhaps trying to discover someone he is. There is something vast and suggestive in the simplicity of these movements. Who is this man? What is his story? Perhaps he is every man, and this is every story.
If The Passenger is a mystery, I suspect the name of its hero is one of its most telling clues. His name is David Locke. Locke is the philosopher who believed that man was a blank slate, a tabula rasa, but David, “beloved,” is the man after God’s own heart. The entire film exists in the tension between these two names.
The Passenger begins, like 2001: A Space Odyssey, in the desert – the cradle of civilization, the dust from which man emerges. Locke, a journalist, enters an African village in a jeep. He is looking for something, though for several nearly wordless first minutes, we hardly know what. The villagers respond to him by pantomiming an action: smoking cigarettes. When Locke supplies the cigarettes, he is led to another location. Eventually, a child climbs into the passenger seat of his jeep. “Do you speak English?” Locke asks. The film’s first spoken line is an attempt to find common ground in language, but an unsuccessful one: the child does not speak English. Locke tries French, but the child does not speak French. Eventually the child seems to understand something; he guides Locke out into the desert and abandons him. One remembers that “a little child will lead them,” though when Locke is left alone, one also recalls that Christ was led into the wilderness to be tested. Like Dante, Locke begins his journey by trying and failing to ascend a mountain. Abandoned again by his guide, now a grown man, Locke returns to his jeep, which also fails him. Alone in the middle of the desert, he strikes the machine in anger, then looks up to the heavens. “All right! I don’t care!” he cries, and falls on his face.
Does Locke fall on his face to pray? It is unclear. He later denies being religious, but here, having come to the end of himself, he falls in the posture of a worshipper. Antonioni’s camera pans away to the empty expanse of the desert, which seems indifferent to Locke’s sufferings, but then, without explanation, we cut away to see him entering a village, not looking terribly worse for wear. Perhaps he walked, but then again, perhaps he was miraculously delivered.
The next scene finds Locke in a hotel, moving from the primitive to the civilized – though a hotel is, by nature, a temporary dwelling. He is thirsty, and given water to drink, though he observes that there is no soap in the shower, and he cannot clean himself. In the next room he finds the dead man. It was not a violent death; when we first see him, it is easy to share Locke’s assumption that he is merely sleeping. The dead man shares Locke’s first name, David, but his last name is Robertson. Robert means “bright” or “shining,” and thus, evocatively, this dead man whose life Locke decides to imitate is the beloved son of a bright or shining one. As Locke listens to recordings of his conversations with the dead man, a flashback fills in a few details: Robertson, a “globetrotter,” describes himself to Locke as a businessman. “Business?” Locke asks incredulously. “In a God-forsaken place like this?”
When pressed to explain the difference between the two men, Robertson tells Locke, “You work with words, images; fragile things. I work with merchandise; concrete things. They understand me straightaway.” The film never gives a clear explanation for Locke’s decision to take on Robertson’s identity, but perhaps he is drawn to the idea of becoming something more concrete than his fragile self. Martin Knight, his producer, tells us Locke was a good journalist because of his “detached” perspective. Becoming Robertson is, considered from one angle, the ultimate expression of Locke’s detachment. From another, he has at last found something to attach himself to. Finding Robertson’s appointment book, Locke begins to follow it, like a devotee with a sacred text. Perhaps it gives shape to his shapeless life. After moving the body, Locke takes the book with him. The authorities do not notice the difference between the two men. “Do you know if Mr. Locke was a religious man?” they ask. Locke shakes his head, but consents to have “his” body buried at a Catholic mission.
We mostly learn about Locke’s old life through footage of interviews he conducted and remembrances of those who knew him. His wife, Rachel, says that he “accepted too much” from his interviewees – a consequence, we might infer, of what Martin described as his “detachment.” Indeed, in The Passenger, the fourth estate seems to regard disinterestedness as a virtue. Locke tells Rachel that the “rules” he follows as a journalist involve not telling his subjects that they are liars, though in one telling scene, he asks a witch doctor if exposure to European modernity has caused him to view his tribal customs as “false” and “wrong.” The man’s reply brings us back to the blankness – the “ghostliness,” or “noughtness,” as Percy would put it – of Locke’s self: “There are perfectly satisfactory answers to all your questions, but I don’t think you understand how little you can learn from them. Your questions are much more revealing about yourself than my answer would be about me.” The witch doctor turns the camera back on Locke, who fidgets uncomfortably and has nothing to say. He would rather watch than be watched, because he is uneasy looking at himself.
Throughout the film, David spends much of his time around old things, moving through old places, which are perhaps more tangible and concrete than their modern successors. Returning to Europe as Robertson, he seems intrigued to see a horse and carriage on a modern English street, and follows them to a church, where he sees a wedding ceremony being performed. Is David looking into the traditions of the past for a solution to the enigma of himself? Suggestively, it is in this church that David is first approached by the emissaries of his new (or old) life. They are Robertson’s customers, rebels from the place where he died; they are “fighting a secret war in an obscure part of the world.” The nature of this war remains evocatively unclear. All we know is that it is an insurrection against a governing body, the figureheads of which deny its existence to the world at large. “I have heard a lot about you, Mr. Robertson,” says one of the rebels. “You are not like the others… you believe in our fight.” This is the first time the concept of belief is connected to Robertson, but not the last. “Do you believe in coincidence?” Locke will muse later in his new life. “I never used to notice it… now I see it all around.” The symbols and iconography of Christianity are more prominent in The Passenger than any of Antonioni’s other works, and if the mood of the film and its protagonist is not quite devout, it is not quite irreverent either. Upon receiving Robertson’s payment from the rebels, Locke looks through the envelope full of money and, apparently, impressed by its contents, mutters, “Jesus Christ” – before remembering that he is in a church and raising his hands in apology. As he follows in the other David’s footsteps, our David often finds himself at churches – though when he reaches a Plaza de la Iglesia (literally, the Church Square), he finds “no one.”
Shortly after he becomes aware of Robertson’s old life, the new David comes into contact with another significant figure: an unnamed girl (Maria Schneider), whose aid he enlists in escaping from Martin and Rachel, the representatives of Locke’s old life. The first and second time he sees the girl, she is reading. Later, we learn that she is a “tourist” and a student of architecture; their first meetings take place in old buildings. Why does she accompany David on his journey? They wind up in bed together, as modern convention dictates, but mere attraction hardly seems to account for their connection. Like David, she is drawn to old things, and perhaps it is this sympathy that draws her to him. “It sounds crazy because I can’t explain it,” David says of his current predicament, but the girl is unfazed by his inability to provide an account of himself. Perhaps she remembers older times, when not everything required a rational explanation. Or perhaps, on some level, she shares the urge to escape the self: while they are driving, she asks what he is running from and he simply tells her to turn around. Seeing nothing more than the road vanishing behind them, she laughs and seems to understand.
As David continues his travels, the girl becomes a guide of sorts, and his new journey begins to resemble his old one. When they ask a man sitting under a roadside cross how far it is to the next stop, he merely shrugs, like the guides Locke dealt with in Africa. Again, his car breaks down. Again, he is foiled in an ascent. “We can’t go up there,” he tells the girl, looking at a mountain road. “We can’t make it.” Still, something has changed in the way he perceives the world. At multiple points in the film, characters ask David, “Isn’t it beautiful?” When Robertson asks, in the desert, Locke replies with a noncommittal, “I don’t know.” Later, taking an aerial tramcar over a bay, David gives no verbal answer to the attendant’s query, but leans out the window, stretching his arms out like a bird hovering over the waters – though one might also find other, more religiously iconic resonance in his cruciform position.
After his second vehicle fails him, the girl asks again, “Isn’t it beautiful here?” David finally responds in the affirmative: “Yes, it’s very beautiful.” When Locke wants to wander, it is the girl who directs him back to the idea of following Robertson: “You can’t be like that, just escaping… Keep the appointment… Robertson made the appointment. He believed in something. That’s what you wanted, didn’t you?”
“But he’s dead,” Locke replies.
“But you’re not,” she counters. David, still torn between skepticism and belief, between his two identities – the old man and the new man, one might say – consents to keep Robertson’s appointment. Sending the girl ahead to Tangiers, he tells her, “I’ll meet you there in three days’ time if you turn up.” Three days is, of course, a length of time charged with theological significance, though when Locke follows through on Robertson’s beliefs and keeps the appointment, he again finds no one. Perhaps it means nothing for David to continue performing the actions prescribed by a dead man, but then again, perhaps there is something admirable about the way he carries out old rituals even though there are no tangible, visible results.
When he arrives at his final destination, the girl is already there, having disregarded his instructions to go to Tangiers and given her name to the front desk as Mrs. Robertson. It is not difficult to see a theological suggestion in the fact that David gets into the Hotel de la Gloria (literally, Hotel of Glory) under another man’s name, though as he once again finds himself in a hotel surrounded by dust, one must wonder if his journey is circular or linear. At the film’s beginning, he gave cigarettes to the villagers; at its end, he takes a cigarette himself. Just as he found Robertson dead in a hotel room, he dies in a hotel room. Yet hotel rooms are not permanent residences, and maybe there is something obliquely comforting about their association with the grave. David dies when the pasts of both Locke and Robertson converge, as Locke’s wife inadvertently leads the assassins chasing after Robertson to him. Yet the assassination takes place off camera, and Locke’s death, like Robertson’s, is serene and unseen. A less than eagle-eyed viewer might even believe that he chooses to give up the ghost, or that he is only sleeping. As David lies down to die, the camera slowly floats through the room’s prison-like bars and out into the courtyard, finally turning back around to see the body and the mourners. “Do you recognize him?” the authorities ask the two women who arrive at the scene. “I never knew him,” says Rachel, his wife, but the girl simply answers, “Yes.” By sharing in Robertson’s death, David has finally escaped Locke, but paradoxically, it is precisely this divestment of self that reveals him authentically to another person. Perhaps he has slipped the bars of his bodily prison with us, and now can finally look at himself.
Finally, there is the matter of the film’s title. At a first glance, The Passenger seems to refer to the girl, but I cannot shake the suggestion that it refers to Locke, who becomes a passenger of sorts on Robertson’s journey, just as the Christian is a passenger of sorts on Christ’s journey. Like David, we seek to imitate a man who died, following a path that is not our own – and at its end, when night falls, we too can hope to find ourselves accepted into glory under another’s name.