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The Passenger

Ismar Badzic thinks about multiple identities.

“I used to be somebody else… but I traded myself in.”
David Locke, The Passenger

Have you ever just wanted to be somebody else? Maybe there’s no particular somebody you want to be – maybe it’s just that you’re sick of who you are, of that name tag you always have to wear. The somebody could be any other body, as long as it isn’t wearing your dirty uniform.

We’ve all been there to some extent. Whether it’s just minor escapist thoughts induced by lusting over the life of the hero of your favourite book, or simply one of those days when you look at a mirror and think ‘Dear Lord!’ No matter how many different shirts or hairstyles you put on; no matter how many massages or blends of green teas you try; no matter how many different colour pants you buy in a faux act of spontaneity, just to try and get out of the boring rut you’re in, you’re still you, and the changes are superficial and temporary. You’d love to leave your baggage on the carousel and just walk straight out of your skin and into somebody else’s – dive feet first into somebody else’s shoes. The only question we never seem to ponder when seeing our broken reflection is ‘will the new shoes fit?’ Perhaps if we did think about it for a moment we would remember that new shoes need breaking in. Perhaps after the box of corn plasters is empty, we’d realise the shoes weren’t the right fit at all and we’d miss the trusty, tattered old ones. Unfortunately, once you’ve slipped the shoes on and they’ve touched the tarmac, the warranty is void. No returns.

Vicarious Metamorphoses

One of the most common experiences of desiring to be somebody else comes when watching a film: one of those films where you sit fixated for hours observing your idealised self immortalised by the silver screen, inspired blood coursing your veins. A James Bond film, for example. He has the looks, the girls, the cars. The only thing he doesn’t have is your dreadful life! Yet for the duration of the film you can become the character. You feel what he feels as you’re treated to a slice of the high life. Then the bubble bursts. You realise you’ve just wasted two of your eight hours sleep watching a dumb repeat… Oh, and that make-or-break presentation is tomorrow. “Vodka Martini” you mutter, at noon, sitting in the bar after a disastrous presentation. Shakenand stirred.

Rewind. What if that film you wasted your time watching wasn’t such a waste? What if the lead actor wasn’t Pierce Brosnan or Sean Connery, but a run-of-the-mill bloke who wasn’t ensconced inside the silver screen, but rather, trapped inside himself? What if you didn’t have to spend the duration of the film pretending to be someone else, but rather watching someone else do that?

Step in Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni, with one of his only three English-language films, The Passenger (1975). Although it only scooped a box office lump of $620,155, it won ‘Best European Film’ in the 1976 Bodil Awards, and ‘Best Director’ and ‘Best Cinematography’ in the 1976 Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists’, and was nominated for the ‘Golden Palm’ at the 1975 Cannes Film Festival. It was very well received by critics, but wasn’t a commercial success – as is the unfortunate fate of a lot of great art films.

Identity Ripples

The Passenger follows Jack Nicholson playing the troubled David Locke as he goes through an identity shock. In an interview with London magazine Time Out, Passenger co-writer Mark Peploe explains that identity is the key premise of the film: “Who we are is the central issue – and it turns out nobody knows who anyone is… David Locke wants to change, wants to care, but he doesn’t even know who he is trying to become.” The film raises philosophical questions about existentialism and utilitarianism as well as personal identity (another being the question of whether ‘David Locke’ is an homage to philosophers David Hume and John Locke).

Our outing begins with Locke, a well-known news reporter, out in Africa on a job. Right from the start, we are shown Locke’s feelings of alienation, of not identifying. He is an outsider in a small town and cannot communicate with anyone.

We are taken into the Sahara desert, where Locke’s truck breaks down. The camera shows emptiness as far as the eye can see, Locke’s loneliness being portrayed particularly through the scenes of his agoraphobic anger. Antonioni expresses the inner workings of Locke’s mind very beautifully, with no explanation needed; just a slow, minimalist use of the camera and simple diagetic [narratively signifying] sounds. The film uses whispers to communicate its message. I must admit it originally seemed to me that the movie was pretentious, until I realised that each shot is a work of beauty, gently teasing out the inner workings of Locke’s character, his emotions and journey, without the use of a backstory or an explicit explanation.

Back at his hotel, Locke walks into a neighbour’s room – an acquaintance of Locke’s called Robertson. Locke finds Robertson dead on his bed with a gun in his pocket. A flashback sequence integrated into the lone musings of Locke shows his conversations with Robertson. Their physical similarity is uncanny – the hotel workers used to mistake the men for each other – and this memory prompts Locke to shed his skin; to walk a few miles in a different pair of shoes. He moves Robertson’s body to his room, and exchanges his passport. He informs the hotel staff that Locke is dead, and he begins his life as Robertson.

Both and Neither

One of the great things about this film is that we are not properly introduced to either Robertson or Locke before the identity swap. We are the passengers in a vehicle of discovery driven by Antonioni’s gradual reveal about both men’s pasts. He’s subtly asking audiences who Locke really is. The men who chase him under the identity of an English gun-runner seem to think he is Robertson. However, Locke’s wife – or technically, widow – Rachel, is chasing him under his original identity of a famous reporter. But who is he?

He is both and neither. He has unpeeled his former self and wants nothing to do with the identity ‘David Locke’. He may have the same mind and body as before; but one point that Antonioni seems to be making is that a person is more than these substances, and is perhaps as much what others make him – as identified through a name and everything strapped on to this hook. It seems Locke is not unhappy with his mind or body. He does not want to become Bond and escape into a fantasy; he simply wants to be his unencumbered self – a blank slate without the responsibilities of a husband or a journalist. He most definitely doesn’t want to become somebody else, such as Robertson. ‘Robertson’ is simply a means to lose ‘Locke’s’ troubles.

Robertson’s death was symbolic of the death of Locke’s identity and the release of his mind. However, the identity swap failed to rid him of Locke’s troubles, and brought with it Robertson’s burdens as well. Locke’s attempt at freedom has given him no such thing. The only freedom that Locke’s ghost gets is in the romance between him and a never-named girl performed by the beautiful and enigmatic Maria Shneider.

Rather than becoming a clean slate, Locke/Robertson has become both men. He is now also neither man, because he does not know who Robertson is, or Robertson’s past, and he does not want to merely be Locke. However, Robertson’s past has very much latched onto him now, and Locke’s past wants him back too. Perhaps this is a main message of the film: to be yourself and love your life, because if the new shoes are a bad fit, there are no returns.

Parting Shots

The most famous part of the film is the penultimate shot. It’s over six minutes long and was done in one continuous take, starting from Locke’s hotel room and inching through the window bars before panning three hundred and sixty degrees to show Locke still on his bed, found dead by hotel staff, the police and his wife. His mystery girl has mysteriously disappeared.

Antonioni was so committed to this shot that he built the entire hotel just for the purpose. It’s the culmination of the film, bringing it round full circle and completing it. The camera work reflects this circularity as it begins from Locke’s side looking out, to finish on the world looking at Locke, dead, thus completing the journeys of the character. Locke is face down on his bed, in the same position that he left Robertson in the opening scenes.

The film is quite difficult to watch; but what’s wrong with that? We’re spoon-fed commercial movies with obvious narratives, clichés and stereotypes. This, on the other hand, is an unconventional film, but all the better for being so: no pumping music, no explosions, no epic monologues or famous quotes. The lack of music alienates audiences and even bores them. The silences and slow panning angles almost make the viewer uneasy. However, there is something very self-assured about the film. It isn’t about what’s said, it’s about what isn’t said, and the cinematography is intended to reflect the feelings of the characters.

The Passenger has been criticised for being pretentious, and I was initially in two minds about it myself. However, it haunted me as few movies have. It raises as many questions as it answers. So many parts of it are confusing, and it takes multiple viewing to understand a lot of the story. We are made to feel as alienated as the protagonist of the film. But this isn’t a flaw. It’s a way for the director to get us to reflect on our own identities and reactions.

Interestingly, the director’s preferred cut is the version that was originally released in Europe under the title Professione: Reporter. The film itself has two identities.

© Ismar Badzic 2010

Ismar is owner of the art group UNZIPMedia.

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