Analysis of ‘The Passenger’

The Passenger (Italian–Professione: reporter) is a 1975 drama directed by Michelangelo Antonioni and written by him, Mark Peploe, and Peter Wollen. The film stars Jack Nicholson and Maria Schneider, with Ian Hendry, Jenny Runacre, and Steven Berkoff.

The Passenger competed for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. It’s been widely praised for its camerawork and its acting. Roger Ebert originally didn’t like it, but he revised his review in 2005, calling it a perceptive look at identity, alienation, and the human desire to escape oneself.

As of this blog post, the film has a rating of 88% on Rotten Tomatoes.

A link to quotes from the film can be found here.

One thing I found striking about The Passenger is how it can be compared and contrasted with Last Tango in Paris, and I’m not merely talking about how, in both films, Schneider plays opposite one of the greatest Hollywood male actors, playing his character’s love interest. In Tango, Paul (Brando) is also trying to escape from his painful past, and in a totally unrealistic way, by meeting with Jeanne (Schneider), not wanting to know her name or anything about her life, and her not knowing anything about him or his name.

The apartment in which Paul and Jeanne have their anonymous affair is an oasis from the pain of his past, which included not only the adultery of his wife, Rosa, but also her suicide. In The Passenger, David Locke (Nicholson) has an affair with the girl (Schneider), whose name we never learn, by the way; his wife, Rachel (Runacre), is having an affair with a man named Stephen (Berkoff), yet it is Locke who commits, so to speak, suicide by having the world believe he’s dead while he takes on a dead man’s identity.

Reality and the past catch up with Paul in the end; he is shot and killed. The same happens to Locke. Neither man can sustain his fantasy world for long.

References to French colonialism in Africa are made, if indirectly, in both films: in The Passenger, it is Chad; in Tango, it is Algeria. Related to this is the liberal hypocrisy of Jeanne and her fiancé wanting to name their children after communist revolutionaries (Fidel or Rosa), while she has such a love and admiration for her father–a colonel in Algeria in the 1950s whom revolutionaries like Frantz Fanon would have fought–that she won’t have Paul say anything bad about the colonel. In The Passenger, Locke is a liberal reporter who poses as a gun-runner for a Chadian liberation movement with Marxist leanings (one like FROLINAT), but all he does is take the money, without any concern for making sure that the Chadian rebels get their weapons.

The theme of duality pervades both films; see my analysis of Tango (link above) to find a discussion of duality in that film. In The Passenger, apart from the man/woman duality of the main characters that is also in Tango, there are the dualities of past vs present, the First and Third Worlds, the two Davids (Locke and Robertson, the latter played by Charles Mulvehill), and perhaps the most important duality of all, which is personified by the two Davids: liberal vs revolutionary.

We are meant to understand that Locke and Robertson are sufficiently similar looking for the one man to be possibly confused with the other (even if Nicholson and Mulvehill don’t look all that alike). Perhaps the African staff in their Chadian hotel consider all white men to look the same.

The similarity in these men’s looks is significant when we remember their political affiliations. Just as the identity of one David is swapped for that of the other, and just as one David is confused with the other, so is the liberal far too often confused with the radical leftist revolutionary, and the need to beware of such confusions is the political message that Antonioni was trying to impart here.

While being a ‘left-leaning liberal’ actually meant something (if not much) back in the 1970s, as opposed to the fact that it’s meant absolutely nothing since at least the 1990s (Bernie Sanders, AOC, et al are useless at opposing imperialism, and that’s speaking kindly of them), any real leftist knows that those 70s liberals’ activism was woefully inadequate at best, and at worst, an indirect aid to anticommunism. This is why Mao wrote “Combat Liberalism.” This is why Lenin didn’t trust the liberals. This is what Parenti meant when he distinguished the liberal analysis from that of the radical. And this is why even a moderate leftist like Phil Ochs satirized liberalism.

The real meaning of the film’s title (not the European one, mind you) is fully realized when seen in this political distinction between liberal and leftist. A passenger just sits passively while others do the work of moving. Locke is the (metaphorical) passenger, not the girl riding in his car, as many assume of the renaming of the film. Liberal opportunists are passengers: they go with the flow, blowing to the left…or to the right! depending on which way the political wind of the time happens to be blowing. The radical Marxist revolutionary, on the other hand, is the driver of the car, the steerer of the ship, one of its oarsmen, or the pilot of the airplane. The leftist actively brings about social and political changes; the liberal just goes along for the ride.

Conservatives–either out of stupidity and ignorance, or disingenuously out of a wish to exploit people’s confusion–like to conflate the liberal with the socialist. They’ll make idiotic claims like ‘hippies are communists,’ or assert that Biden and Harris are bringing about ‘toxic socialism,’ when the Democratic Party had already swung over to the political right back during the Clinton years (even Carter, with Brzezinski squirting his anticommunist poison in Carter’s ears, was hardly ‘left-leaning’ in any meaningful sense).

Locke personifies what I’ve characterized as the liberal mindset. His id would have him indulge in all kinds of pleasures: taking a huge wad of money (without even trying to supply the weapons he’s being paid for) and traveling around Europe (Munich and Barcelona), buying colourful clothes, and enjoying the charms of the girl. His ego would keep him safe from being found out by his BBC associate, producer Martin Knight (Hendry), Rachel, or the Chadian dictator’s secret police, those who kill him in the end. His superego, however, has him in an existential crisis wherein he’d report on the Chadian civil war in a manner sympathetic to the Marxist rebels, but Knight and the establishment media would have him keep his sense of “detachment,” have him remain ‘neutral’ and ‘objective’ (translation: leaving the colonialist status quo unchallenged).

As a passenger, all Locke wants to do is keep moving: it doesn’t matter where he’s going, since he’s directionless, as long as he’s moving. His feeling stuck in “God-forsaken” Chad, his truck stuck in a sand dune, is symbolic of his existential crisis. Where can he go with his life as an establishment liberal reporter? He wants to feel as though he’s going somewhere, making some kind of advancement in his life. Not necessarily really going anywhere in particular, just feeling as if he’s moving. And that’s what makes him different from men like Robertson.

In the hot desert of Chad, he feels himself to be in a hopeless situation. He can’t find the guerrillas he wants to interview, to get a perspective opposing that of the dictator. He has recorded largely only the biased and dishonest point of view of the country’s ruling class; he’d might as well be supporting them. Here we see the existential crisis of the liberal who would be a revolutionary…if only he had the guts.

He feels dead in terms of the meaning of his life; it’s fitting that his truck is stuck in the desert sands. This sand is like the dust from which Adam sprang, and to which Locke will return when he dies (Genesis 3: 19; Ecclesiastes 3:20). All is vanity, the absurdist vanity of living in a meaningless world in which his only end will be death.

So when he finally returns to his hotel, exhausted and crestfallen, and he finds Robertson lying dead on his bed, Locke decides to die himself, by taking on Robertson’s identity. Adios a la pasada for Locke.

Though the past and present are bitterly opposed for Locke, there is nonetheless a link between the two that he can’t break, and this inability of his is foreshadowed in the scene when he’s switching his and Robertson’s passport photos. Locke has recorded a conversation between himself and Robertson, which he plays back while switching the photos.

The tape recording isn’t the only link with the past, though. In one of Antonioni’s famous long takes, we see bare-chested Locke at the table with the passports as the tape plays; he looks over to the side and the camera moves away from him to where the balcony shows a living Robertson and…Locke in a shirt! There is no cut in this camera shot. Antonioni has fused the present with the past in a manner bordering on the surreal; he had experimented with the border between the real and unreal, between certainty and uncertainty, in Blowup. The shot immediately after the balcony one, also without a cut, shows the flashback with Robertson return to the present with bare-chested Locke changing the passport photos. He’d cut himself off from his past, but not even the camera will cut away from it.

Earlier, Locke is sitting on Robertson’s bed, looking at the face of the corpse up close. This dead man, whose life was so different from the dead-end one that Locke wants to escape, is someone he now idealizes. He looks at the face, of this similar-looking man, as one would see oneself in a mirror; recall how Lacan spoke of seeing one’s ideal-I in a mirror, that perfect, unified image one sees, as opposed to the fragmented self one feels oneself to be.

Locke feels just this inadequacy compared to his dead twin; he feels even less alive than Robertson. Soon after, he finds Robertson’s pistol–not only representative of the dead man’s revolutionary leanings, but also a phallic manhood that Locke lacks. This ineffectual liberal now feels all the more inadequate.

But he can fake being a revolutionary, like those liberals who wear Che Guevara T-shirts and vote Democrat?

In trading Robertson’s identity for his own, Locke is establishing a narcissistic False Self and projecting his hated True Self onto Robertson’s corpse. Taking the pistol, Locke no longer feels psychologically castrated. Ironically, Robertson has said he’s in Chad “on business,” as if he were a bourgeois, when it is Locke who is the bourgeois, swapping identities with the revolutionary.

Antonioni’s films give great importance to location, including architecture, and The Passenger is no exception. In this film, we find a recurring motif of architecture, including churches or at least buildings whose names are associated with religion, like the Plaza de la Iglesia and the Hotel de la Gloria. Then, of course, there are the buildings of Gaudí, seen when Locke meets the girl, a student of architecture who knows Gaudí’s work.

Gaudí’s earlier career involved making buildings for bourgeois clients, though religiosity preoccupied his thoughts in his later life, through his focus on the Sagrada Família. The significance of these changes in Gaudí’s work for The Passenger is in how they can be said to parallel the change in Locke’s: his existential crisis, his search for meaning, can find a symbol in Gaudí’s search for God.

Now, none of this is to say that Locke’s search for meaning is anywhere near as noble or lofty as Gaudí’s; but in Locke’s narcissistic imagination, in his False Self as ‘gun-running revolutionary,’ he’d like to think of his search as comparable to a spiritual quest. Linked with this would-be quest is his meeting of the girl, who as a kind of guardian angel to him in her pressing of him to continue showing up for every meeting in Robertson’s little appointment book, is like a reincarnation of Robertson. When one considers Locke’s sexual relationship with the girl, that she can be seen as Robertson come back is in how, when Locke looked at his corpse up close, his face was so close to dead Robertson’s as to imply a wish to kiss him; after all, Robertson is his ideal-I, just as the girl, as his lover, is in a sense his other self.

While wearing that fake moustache in England, symbolic of a mask for his False Self, Locke sees the girl and will later remember her, as if it were fate bringing them together. In Munich, he is paid for papers with gun illustrations, in a church, of all places, one in which one can see the Stations of the Cross in the background. Since The Passenger is, in effect, the film documenting Locke’s life that Knight and the BBC would be making for their ‘deceased’ colleague, all these associations with spirituality and revolutionary heroism would seem to indicate that this ‘documentary film’ is an idealizing of his flawed life, in true narcissistic fashion.

He, of course, isn’t helping any revolutionary cause, nor has he found God. Like Paul in Last Tango in Paris, Locke is being completely irresponsible, throwing away his wife and his past, taking the rebels’ money without providing anything more than pictures of weapons, and having an affair with the girl. Like that fire he burns in his yard in his home in England (one of the flashback scenes) with Rachel wondering what he’s doing, Locke wants only to destroy the old, not build the new. What’s he running away from? Look back with the girl and see the road that Locke’s car has driven on: he’s in constant motion, getting away from the past, but with no discernible future or destination.

He can try to destroy the past, to run away from it, and (like Paul) try to live in a fantasy world, but he won’t succeed. Hitherto unfaithful Rachel becomes guilt-ridden over his ‘death,’ and wants Knight to contact the Robertson she understands to be alive. When Knight fails to find him in Barcelona, Rachel is all the more driven to find this mysterious man.

She isn’t the only one searching for “Robertson.” So are the secret police of the Chadian dictator, who–as Rachel learns at the Chadian embassy when she collects Locke’s things–wants to stop the illegal sale of guns to rebels in his country. Rachel is unwittingly helping these men find “Robertson,” whom she soon learns is really Locke. Incidentally, one of the secret police is a white man, presumably French (we hear him speaking to the girl in French at the Hotel de la Gloria when his associate is off to shoot Locke), strongly implying French neocolonial involvement in the Chadian Civil War, to root out the Marxists.

[As a side note, the Wikipedia article for The Passenger refers to the two men who follow and kill Locke as working with the rebels: on this assumption, the white one beats the crap out of Achebe (played by Ambroise Bia) because the rebels are mad that he gave the money to the wrong man. I disagree with this interpretation. I don’t think the rebels would react that violently to one of their comrades for what was an honest mistake, and would kill the thief of their money rather than angrily demand he give at least what he hasn’t spent back to them…and beat the crap out of him. Agents working for the Chadian dictator, on the other hand, would be that violent. Besides, I have the authority of Theodore Price, whose article on the movie includes references to the complete, uncut script, and who calls the men Chadian secret police.]

The film begins among the sands of Chad, a dictatorship persecuting the leftist resistance within it. The film ends in Spain, at a hotel surrounded in dust. Though Antonioni is too subtle a director to point this out, the viewer who knows his history will be aware that the Spain when The Passenger is set (1973) was also a dictatorship, that of Franco, who had leftists holed up and ‘reeducated’ in concentration camps, and who died the year of the film’s release, after which Spain only slowly crawled back into the realm of liberal democracy. The film thus, like music, has a kind of ABA structure: from dusty dictatorship to pretty democracy, and back again.

Before the penultimate scene with his death, Locke tells the girl a story about a blind man who regained his sight. The man was “elated” at first to be able to see, but he was soon disillusioned when he saw so much “dirt” and “ugliness” in the world. When blind, he easily crossed the road with a walking stick; with his sight, he became afraid even to leave his room. In three years, he killed himself.

This story seems to reflect, though one isn’t sure if Locke realizes it, that through those changes we make in our lives, we think we’re liberating ourselves, but we are only putting ourselves in different chains. Locke thought his trading identities with Robertson would free him from his past, but the pursuits of Knight and Rachel have proven that he’s escaped from nothing.

The girl leaves him in the hotel room and walks around on the dusty ground outside, as if to continue her work as his guardian angel, to be able to return if he needs her. The famous penultimate scene of his death, curious in being a long take largely without him in it, deserves special attention, obviously; I’d also like to give my personal interpretation of it.

Antonioni said that we don’t see Locke when he is killed because he was already dead when he chose no longer to be Locke. I’d like to expand on that idea by saying that, instead of seeing him, we see a POV shot of his spirit, even before the shooting, looking out onto the dusty square where the girl is walking about. His spirit approaches the bars on the window and passes outside; he has freed himself from the prison of a human body. Locke is rid of the lock on the door of his caged existence. Like Gaudí, he has found God, in a way, in the Hotel de la Gloria, its very name suggestive of religiosity.

Just as pious Gaudí was killed by a tram, so have vehicles arriving at Locke’s hotel brought his death: the car of the Chadian secret police, who followed Rachel to find him, her own vehicle with the police arriving too late. Locke is dead lying on the bed of his hotel room, as Robertson was found dead; both men have died thus in countries that are dusty dictatorships–ABA structure.

For dust Locke is, and unto dust shall he return.

His murder by the Chadian secret police is interesting in how he, having only received money, but having never provided weapons to the rebels, is actually innocent of being any kind of danger to the dictator of Chad. Pilate, learning from Jesus that His Kingdom “is not of this world” (John 18:36), also concluded that the man to be crucified was innocent of any revolutionary crime against the Roman Empire. Locke is thus a Christ figure, his holy spirit, as it were, slowly floating out of that room, through those bars, and out into the dusty square. In this way, Locke’s death is also comparable to that of the mystic architect.

Now, this making of Locke into a Christ figure is to be seen from the point of view of fascist, imperialist dictatorships. Men like Franco justified their authoritarian rule by claiming that they were saving their country from ‘satanic’ Marxism and preserving its Christian traditions. In this way, Christ-like Locke, like a good liberal who only pretends to be a revolutionary, is doing the Lord’s good work, keeping the strongmen in power by doing nothing to threaten their hold on it.

When Rachel finds her husband’s body on that bed with a bullet in him, she says she “never knew him,” echoing Peter’s denial of Christ three times before the cock crowed (Luke 22:34). This is the perfect ending to Locke’s ‘documentary,’ for in his narcissistic imagination, he’s died a martyr, and yet his spirit will always be with us.

This martyr-like status, of course, is just part and parcel of Locke’s narcissistic False Self. He couldn’t really be Robertson to save his life…literally. Locke deals in “words, images”; Robertson deals in “concrete things,” so the people understand him straightaway. Locke thus personifies Hegelian idealism, while Robertson personifies Marxian materialism.

Locke’s existential search for meaning is just a Camus-like absurdist one: Locke has tried to escape his liberal past by merely posing as a revolutionary; and like Sisyphus’ futile rolling up of that rock, Locke has failed miserably. We defy the Fates and attempt to give our lives value, and we’re happy in the attempt, as Camus says Sisyphus is, and as Locke briefly has been (think of that scene of him in the cable car in Spain, when he pokes his upper half out the window and stretches his arms out over the water…he feels as free as a bird); but the certainty of death assures us of the ultimate futility of our attempt.

So the lesson we must learn from The Passenger is, do we as leftists want to be engagé revolutionaries in the driver’s seat, or do we want to be mere liberal passengers, going along for the ride, hoping to share in the glory, but doing none of the heavy lifting? Certainly, when Antonioni filmed Chung Kuo, Cina, the Chinese Communists hated it, regarding him as a mere liberal, pandering passenger. Deeply hurt by this reaction, he made his 1975 masterpiece in response.

Now, what will we do in today’s neoliberal hell? Shall we try to throw away our pasts and live in a fantasy world, à la Paul and Jeanne in Last Tango in Paris? Shall we carry Robertson’s pistol around, feeling tough with it, but be too scared to use it? Shall we try to take the easy way out and avoid our painful reality? As Robertson warns us, “the world doesn’t work that way.”

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