Criterion Prediction #86: The Passenger, by Alexander Miller
Title: The Passenger
Director: Michelangelo Antonioni
Cast: Jack Nicholson, Maria Schneider, Jenny Runacre, Ian Hendry, Steven Berkoff
Synopsis: Listless journalist David Locke (Nicholson) is on an assignment in North Africa when he discovers the body of a man he recently met. Locke assumes his identity, only to find his new persona is that of an arms dealer, engaged with dangerous contacts. Locke evades his pursuers while developing an affair with a young woman who aids him in fleeing his past and present life.
Critique: Antonioni is divisive; you either like his slow narratives of inner turmoil and alienation or you don’t. His work is not always an easy sell, but Antonioni is a screen artist who is (in my opinion) required viewing for any serious fan of cinema. The Passenger seems to have an especially inconsistent critical response. Geoff Andrew referred to it as Antonioni’s best work, Leonard Maltin remains lukewarm (with **1/2 out of ****), and Roger Ebert reneged on his initial negative reaction in. Adjacent to his earlier English language feature Blow-Up, The Passenger feels like an evolution in Antonioni’s distinct style. Marking an ascension in scope, The Passenger takes the suggested body David Hemmings was agonizing over in Blow-Up and gives a literal transgression into his affecting (if familiar) examination of social abjection.
The Passenger retains the moody tradition of Antonioni’s style, and comparatively is a bit plottier. There is a fascinating tone to the silent creation of Locke’s biting ennui and changing identity. Nicholson’s introverted first act feels so much more genuine than his strained relationship later on with Maria Schneider’s character. We expect a degree of metaphysical rendering, but because of Antonioni’s lack of involvement in Schneider’s presence, it’s difficult for us to garner any interest in a character credited as “The Girl.”
Antonioni’s previous work, such as L’aventurra, La Notte, and L’eclisse indicates that Antonioni is masterful at killing relationships, not creating them – the human interactions that do occur in his movies are reductively physical in the characters’ dispassionate trysts that are on the periphery of emotional deterioration. There’s a trace of that consistent run over in Nicholson and Schneider’s relationship, but the film leans on her to power the narrative so much she feels purely utilitarian.
The primary accelerant of Antonioni’s anti-climactic expression is the atmosphere permeating as a by-product of the story, not the story itself. The Passenger is teeming with earthy symbolism echoing Locke’s despondency. When the vast desert sand swallows his car, the impossibility (or abstraction) of this scene and its composition suggests the apex of Antonioni’s sensibilities, finding the negative space in natural and urban vistas and channeling them to their symbolic maxim.
I think for modern audiences, Nicholson is by default associated with his many “wild man” roles that made him famous, but seeing his understated performances in The King of Marvin Gardens, A Safe Place, Reds, and even Terms of Endearment is a revelation. The Passenger is mightily low-key Nicholson at his best. He looks and feels entirely comfortable in the context of the film – there aren’t too many who could fill the shoes of Antonioni’s muse Monica Vitti, but Nicholson does wonderfully throughout.
I’d like to say that admiration extends to the entirety of The Passenger. Like all of the director’s other work this is a thoroughly beautiful film. Some praise the movie for being the most plot-driven of the director’s work. However, when The Passenger picks up the pieces of the plot, something special gets lost along the way, and the literal death of Locke by the finale feels less substantial than the emotional death felt in his abandonment trilogy.
Why it Belongs in the Collection: With a movie like this, its addition in The Criterion Collection is practically an inevitability; for all the Antonioni films included in the collection, it’s surprising that Blow-Up was recently released and that The Passenger is yet to earn the distinction. It looks like the odds are in favor with this one, with a clean transfer on Filmstruck that’s leaps and bounds ahead of the Sony DVD, which is the predominant vehicle for the movie on home video.