The following is the third and final essay for my Global Cinema course, entitled “Antonioni’s Artwork: The Passenger.” The paper focuses on the final scene of Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1975 film, The Passenger. The film features Jack Nicholson and Maria Schneider, and is beautifully filmed. Almost all of the scenes were filmed on location in wonderful and exotic places. It is, in essence, an “art” film, but the presence of Nicholson makes it much more… watchable. The Passenger is a bit on the long side (it’s a little over two hours, but feels longer), but I found it very interesting and morally provocative. I would recommend seeing the film before reading my paper (only because this is about the END). But if curiosity, and free time, are pressing, please read on.
The Reel Rating: 7.1
Antonioni’s Artwork: The Passenger
Born in Italy in 1912, Director Michelangelo Antonioni was greatly influenced by Italian Neorealism in his filmmaking career. Antonioni’s affinity for the neorealist aesthetic presents itself in many of his films and is especially apparent in their mise-en-scènes. He once said, “I have never shot a scene without taking account of what stands behind the actors because the relationship between people and their surroundings is of prime importance.” However, his spectrum reaches beyond shot composition, and even neorealism, as evidenced by his later adoption of new wave elements: specifically those of camera movement and editing. His 1975 film, The Passenger, is a great example of the “art-house” style of filmmaking which was burgeoning at the time. Antonioni evokes the neorealist and new wave styles in The Passenger through symbolic imagery, a voyeuristic camera, and long takes to illustrate the alienation and escapism of its main character, David Locke.
Symbolism pervades The Passenger and nowhere in the film is this more apparent than the final scene. The bars on Locke’s window hold both literal and figurative significance. In the most literal sense, they are an obstacle, a barrier, between Locke and the world outside his room. These bars protect him; somewhat ironically as several people enter his room (one even to kill him), from those on the other side. However, the symbol of these bars is best understood in a more figurative light. They are representative of the barrier which Locke has set up between himself and those around him. This extends beyond the walls of the room, which serves as a microcosm for his own experiences, to his life at large. The walls of the hotel are painted white, which too is ironic because white is traditionally a marker of innocence and purity, two things which are in direct contrast to Locke’s character. He spends the entire film running away and “locking out” reality (his job, wife, identity, etc.). In the final sequence, his room even estranges the new identity he has assumed with Maria Schneider’s character, Martin Knight, and the clients he has worked with. In essence, the bars and walls of this room show that even by escaping his old identity, Locke is never truly happy and can never completely run away from what plagues him. Even Locke’s name is conceivably a symbol for his personality tendencies, which in some ways serves as a foreboding that he will always be who he is. This is in much the same way as Harry Caul’s character in Coppola’s The Conversation where his life is in a “caul,” separate from his surroundings.
The individuals shown in the final scene also hold elements of symbolism in their own rights. The girl represents what Locke yearns for but can never obtain: a new life, adventure, love. She tries to help him become happy, but ultimately falls short because of Locke’s inherent characteristic of resistance. Locke’s wife, having figured out he was still alive, arrives in his room to find him dead, but he had been dead to her a long time before, saying, “I never knew him.” His wife and the police, finally arriving at the hotel after having chased him in the preceding minutes of the film, represent his past catching up with him.
Antonioni engages the camera in The Passenger’s final sequence, as well as the film in its entirety, in a voyeuristic manner reminiscent of the new wave and neorealist styles. In the case of the final sequence, the camera moves like a curious but cautious child: a child whose attention is present but somehow removed. The camera moves at a painstakingly slow, but deliberate pace in the final scene. It seems to be in a sort of trance, which prevents it from quickly approaching the subjects it depicts. Once Locke lies down on the bed, the focus shifts to what is going on outside of his hotel. But even the events out of the room are seen from afar as if the camera is simply staring out into the distance. Events unfold; a boy plays fetch with a dog, a taxi pulls up, a mariachi band plays in the distance, but the camera’s “curiosity” is not peaked by these events. It simply moves with a mind of it’s own, observing. The camera’s voyeuristic tendency seems to be present in Locke’s character as well. As the camera moves carefree and nonchalant, so too does Locke, blissfully disinterested in the problems that surround him. The scene in which the audience is first introduced to the girl is another great example of this type of cinematography. As the camera catches Locke’s interaction with the girl and he continues on, it stays on her. The camera is no longer interested in Locke but is captivated by this girl’s aura. Despite having no familiarity with the girl, the camera lingers on her; again, observing.
Another device Antonioni puts to use in the film is the long take. Long takes occur with some regularity over the course of the film. This style creates angst, as more “traditional” films use editing techniques to breakup action. Antonioni plays against this convention in a way characteristic of new wave cinema. With the long take, the audience is given more time to absorb the surroundings, in much the same way as the camera explores. An early long take in the film appears when Locke is first left along in the middle of the desert. The length of the shot helps formulate the notion that he is alone, set apart from others and the world. The vastness of the desert is scanned by the camera to show that Locke is just an insignificant blip on the proverbial map.
Perhaps the best example in The Passenger of how the long take is utilized to create tension and apprehension is this final scene. As aforementioned, the camera quickly segregates itself from Locke and moves within the surroundings; as a result, the audience is left to wonder what is happening in his room. With all of the people arriving to find him, does he know they are here? Is he escaping? Is he even alive? These questions all bubble to the surface as the audience is subjected to what lies in front of the camera. Even towards the end of the take, it is somewhat unclear what has happened to Locke. After a few rewatchings of the scene, a gunshot can be discerned from underneath the rumble of a car’s engine. Again, there is a significant difference in this type of filmmaking from that of the classical narrative form. Antonioni does not simply give the audience the directions to construct the puzzle; rather he provides visages of the pieces, each of which must be understood before they can be ordered together.
The method of filmmaking which Antonioni takes advantage of in The Passenger is redolent of earlier films like Fritz Lang’s M. Both film in a voyeuristic and somewhat documentary-like process. Present in the two is the interest and yet also the disinterest in their main characters, a trait which is deliberately introspective of itself. That is to say the films make obvious the integration and separation of these individuals from their surroundings. One of the reasons Antonioni was able to have The Passenger, which can be regarded as “art house” because of it’s clear creative differences, shown to a wider audience is because he included “stars” (i.e. Jack Nicholson and Maria Schneider). This is a practice in which Jean-Luc Goddard dabbled for films like Contempt with Brigitte Bardot and Jack Palance. By casting these established actors and actresses, their films had an automatic following. With this following, movies like Antonioni’s The Passenger were able to break cinematic conventions to tell the audience a story in a new and creative way.