A man dies in his hotel room in Africa. A news reporter, David Locke (Jack Nicholson), finds the body, realizes he bears a striking resemblance to the deceased (1), and decides to assume his identity. Locke's motivation? All we gather is that he wants to be free of his past; however, he is unsure how he will use this unexpected opportunity. He finds the man's appointment book (2) which contains a detailed itinerary but gives no hint of his profession. It doesn't matter. What Locke needs right now is unpredictability.
Locke's subsequent actions seem motivated by two impulses: one, to follow the path Robertson - the dead man - has laid out in his appointment book; and, two, to evade those who are trying to track him down, namely his wife (Jenny Runacre) and a colleague who have discovered that Locke is not dead. We are aware of no other desires, no other purpose that might be driving Locke. He is letting himself be taken for a ride, with the dead Robertson his guide. He becomes the passenger of the film's title.
What seems paramount in David Locke's mind is the need to give up his past--the unhappy marriage, the tedious and now meaningless job of video journalism. The one insight Antonioni gives us of Locke's disillusion with his job as a television journalist occurs in an earlier taped interview with an African rebel (3). Locke asks a series of standard questions and gets the following response:
"Mr. Locke, there are perfectly satisfactory answers to all your questions, but I don't think you can understand how little you can learn from them. Your questions are much more revealing about yourself than my answers would be about me."
"I meant them quite sincerely."
"Mr. Locke, we can have a conversation, but only if it's not just what you think is sincere, but also what I believe to be honest."
"Yes, of course, but..."
The man gets up and turns the camera away from him and toward Locke.
"Now we can have an interview. You can ask me the same questions as before."
If there is more of the taped interview we don't get to hear it.
In "Minima Moralia" the sociologist/philosopher Theodor Adorno writes, "To adapt to the weakness of the oppressed is to affirm in it the pre-condition of power, and to develop in oneself the coarseness, insensibility and violence needed to exert domination." Adorno goes on to say that "inviolable isolation" will help us share men's suffering. Whether Locke realizes his own complicity in exacerbating the suffering of the oppressed or is simply fed up with his job and his life, we do not know.Is Antonioni suggesting that one's motivations are often muddled, that there is some inner drive that overrides rationality?
Nicholson's face reflects these seemingly contradictory conditions, Lock's isolation and new found freedom, along with the realization that although he is free he is not really in control of this fate.
Locke starts out not knowing Robertson's profession, but not for long. The man was an arms merchant, selling weapons to the highest bidder. Locke is neither troubled nor worried by this. He is curious.His curiosity seems to have no moral dimension, no genuine interest in another's perspective, not unlike his interviewing technique which is based on his views, on his biases rather than those of the interviewee.
We might think that Locke will gradually "disappear" into Robertson, but uncertainty lurks around every turn. He is a trained observer, but looking too long creates its own difficulties. He begins to make connections, at first seemingly random, coincidental, like running into an architecture student, played by Maria Schneider. Later she will joke to him that she is his bodyguard, but we will learn that she does not do a very good job of that. With and through her he enters a new space, characterized by the architecture of Gaudi with its intricate and alien forms (4). When he first seeks her out to ask for her assistance, a private docent so to speak, he must go through a maze of sorts which Gaudi had created on a roof (5). Rather than simply moving away from his past, he must begin to look at things from a new perspective.
The "search" motif runs through many of Antonioni's films, and though Locke himself seems to have no clear motivations, he does have a compass, Robertson's appointment book. And that means the Hotel de la Gloria in Osuna in Spain.
In "L'avventura" and "Blow Up" the initial search for clues is eventually put aside in favor of other interests. In the case of "The Passenger" David Locke has abandoned his past and his compromised values in favor of an illusory freedom. His predicament is not his inability to understand freedom but rather he begins to understand his own need, his own fascination with what lies at the end of the journey.
In the second half of the movie Antonioni shows us two scenes that capture Locke's longing. The first occurs in Barcelona as he boards a cable car. He leans out the window and extends his arms as if he were flying over water (6). Antonioni's framing tricks us, in a sense. Looking at this still outside the context of the film, we could assume Locke is indeed flying unencumbered, freed from the earth's gravity. Locke himself seems to succumb to this illusion of flight, liberating himself from the world's pull.
The other pictorial instance of a flight toward freedom happens as he and the girl (Maria Schneider) are leaving Barcelona. She asks him what he is running away from. He tells her to turn her back to the front seat (7). She looks awestruck (8) at the receding trees on either side of the road disappearing into a vanishing point (9). As Locke's past recedes into that same vanishing point, the road ahead is unknown even though Robertson's appointment book leads inexorably to the Hotel de la Gloria in Osuna.
In his films Antonioni tells us that our fate is uncertain, that we are fragile, dependent creatures who, nevertheless, have our desires. For Antonioni if the established order is upset, this is enough. In the last scene, the camera moves ever so slowly from Locke resting on a bed in the Hotel de la Gloria, then passes through a barred window, and after a slow traverse of the surroundings returns to Locke's room where it peers inside at a dead David Locke (10) who has achieved, perhaps, the freedom he sought. It's a disconcerting ending but one we are not unprepared for.
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