Conjunctions:42 Cinema Lingua: Writers Respond to Film

Rewatching The Passenger
When Antonioni made The Passenger he had been shooting feature films for twenty-five years; he was fluent in his medium. The first part of the film is dominated by the African desert. It is intensely monochromatic and oppressively quiet. A man, an American (we are told by his accent) is being guided by jeep into the desert by an African youth. The youth does not respond to the man’s questions: You speak English? French? (Asked in ungrammatical French). The youth abandons the jeep on foot, not speaking, his back turned to the man’s pleas to stop. A white camel and its rider float within range. They pass without acknowledging the man’s signals for help. Linking shots are removed. We are shown the man climbing a steep hill behind another guide. The man is burdened by his equipment. What he carries is not made explicit. He persists in asking: How many people? Do they have arms? The questions continue to go unanswered. Catching sight of a caravan of armed riders filing through the gap below them, the second guide abandons him. 

In the next scene the man has run the jeep aground in the sand. After a futile attempt as shoveling out, he flings himself to his knees, shouting. All right, I don’t care! 

Next we see him trudging into a village with his gear entering the small adobe inn where he is apparently already a guest. He requests drinking water, which is brought, and soap, which he is told they do not have. His shower runs while he taps at the neighbor’s door, Robertson’s door, presumably to borrow soap. Language is minimized. 

The drama builds in the pressure of what is being suppressed verbally, and what is being insinuated visually. The pressure is unrelenting. The man discovers Robertson spread across his bed faceup. He checks neck for a pulse, flips through the dead man’s appointment book. One entry, Hotel de la Gloria, is momentarily legible to us. The American takes Robertson’s blue shirt, lights a cigarette, and picks up the phone to inquire about the flights. There are two a week; the next one is Tuesday. 

Night. The American switches passport photos with Robertson as he listens to a taped conversation between the two of them. A flashback advances the conversation. Their backs are shown to us, standing on a balcony of the inn. We learn the American, Locke, is a television journalist for a London network. He has come to the desert in order to interview the leaders of an ongoing guerrilla war with the government. Robertson is a businessman, an unlikely profession in this godforsaken (Locke’s view) landscape. Something Robertson says strikes Locke as poetic for a businessman. They drink into the night, getting acquainted. Robertson mentions his bad heart, his need for total abstinence, and calls for another drink. The sequencing leaks information in reverse. The plotting relies heavily on our memories, and this requires unexpected, pleasurable effort. 

Circumstances provide the only immediate motivation: there was a dead man, and therefore there was an identity switch. Locke drags Robertson’s corpse into his own bed and notifies the desk: the gentleman in number eleven is dead. The desk clerk’s face registers but swiftly seals confoundment when Locke identifies himself as David Robertson, the dead man as David Locke. Gradually we learn that it is that Robertson’s death has offered Locke, an escape from the desert inside him—from the English wife he does not love, the adopted son whose image we never see, the prestigious job he does not want. Lock suffers from a pervasive feelinglessness. The social designation for it is commonplace—alienation. So far, Locke’s self-awareness has been limited to impulse, but the opportunity is unevenly paved for redemption. Robertson, the globe-trodden businessman, dealt in arms, not the fragility of words and images. Robertson, it turns out, was a partisan. The gunrunner believed in the insurgency. His world was provisional and solitary, but was not alien. 

The camera selects a girl reading on a park bench. Locke notices her seconds later. We know a few things he does not, a few frames ahead of Locke. 

In the Munich airport, watched by two suited men, an African and a European, Locke opens a locker, takes out an illustrated sheaf of papers, diagrams of weaponry. The nature of his new occupation begins to dawn on him. Robertson’s appointment in a chapel. After a wedding the same two suits join him, scan the diagrams with approval. They thank him for his support and offer their assistance should he need it. They treat him warmly, with real concern for his safety. Locke accepts the first cash installment, barely covering his confusion. 

Locke’s window does not mourn the man to whom she was married, but is nagged by his death. At her urging, her husband’s producer tries to trace a man named Robertson believed to be one of the last to have spoken to Locke. When Rachel picks up her husband’s effects at the British embassy she learns that Robertson is a gunrunner. She is given to understand that the British are cooperating with the African government to eliminate him. 

Night. Rachel, the widow of David Locke, is not sleeping. Idly she sifts through her husband’s effects, discovering the doctored passport. Now she knows everything. Now she cares, not because he has cast off his former life, which importantly includes her, but because he has acted. He has broken the rules, whereas before, he seemed to be living a lie. He accepted too much, she complained to his producer. He involved himself in real situations—she complained to her husband after observing him interview one of the African government’s hacks—then he had no real dialogue. Or as the witch doctor he interviewed informed him, the reporter’s questions revealed more about himself than the witch doctor’s answers would about himself. The new Locke is engaged, and for it, endangered. 

Following a lead from an Avis rental, the producer travels to Barcelona to find Robertson, still unaware of the switch. Both Locke and the producer are checked into the Hotel Oriente. The camera selects The Girl reading on a bench in a famous building designed by Gaudi. The Girl tells him that the man who built it was hit by a bus. Locke has managed to give the producer the slip on the street. He cannot return to his hotel for his things. The Girl tells him Gaudi built it for workers; now it is used for concerts, for Wagner. He tells her he has switched identities with someone else and there is someone he does not want to see at his hotel. She does not question his history of his motives. Instead she retrieves his things from his hotel, eluding the British producer, and throws her own suitcase into the backseat. Destination unknown. 

Locke keeps Robertson’s next appointment but is not met by anyone. He does not seem bothered by a no-show, but we have seen the African man he was to meet forcibly removed from the courtyard and taken to an abandoned building. Actual violence occurs off set. 

Rachel Locke is now in Spain looking for her husband. The police are looking for him. Thugs for the African government are looking. When stopped by local police outside a small town The Girl accompanies the officer to the station, and comes back to tell David a Rachel Locke is looking for David Robertson because she thinks he is in danger. Locke and The Girl leave Spain. The Girl, his passenger and his guide, tells him he should keep Robertson’s appointment, that is what Robertson would do. Robertson believed in something, and that is what Locke was looking for. Locke allows The Girl to articulate an intention to his actions. 

He persuades The Girl to leave. He tells her he will meet her in Tangiers in three days. She boards a bus, arriving at the Hotel de la Gloria ahead of him. She registers as his wife, Mrs. Robertson. Her identity has become tied to his. 

Lying in bed on his back while she stands at the window of the hotel room, he asks what she sees. She sees a little boy and an old woman arguing about which way to go, a man scratching his shoulder, a kid throwing stones and dust. It is very dusty. He tells her she should not have come. What the fuck are you doing here with me, he speaks gently, her body atop his, kissing her. Actual sex occurs off set. You better go. OK, she says. Seated in a straightbacked chair in the adjoining room, she holds her head in her hands. He goes to the window, lies down, smokes, appears to nap. 

In the courtyard we see two older men, a dog. We watch a car pull up, The Girl standing in the dust. A taxi guns by again. We hear a trumpet solo, a few funereal bars for the fallen Spanish bull. A man gets out of the car, walks The Girl away from the window with his arm on her shoulder. Another man goes inside. We hear a door slam or a car backfire or a muffled shot. The car speeds off. The taxi returns, the police arrive and the widow. I never knew him, Rachel says over the dead man on the bed. Asked if she knew him, The Girl says, Yes. 

Night. Outside the Hotel de la Gloria. A few strokes of “The Apasionata” on a guitar. Credits. Encore. 

Some have said it was the sound that they liked best about The Passenger, the rub of a fan, a television airing through a door. Or the disjunction of sound, something is heard, i.e., a crap of dialogue; then, what was heard is shown. Also the absence of so much talk coupled with the absence of a score. Others admire its sandy beauty, the constant sun. The mystery and suspense of it. Antonioni’s characteristic psychological intensity. At least one critic dubbed it pretentious and tedious. Another jabbed at the director’s thirst for purposefulness. In fact, it is a very balanced film: the right measure of erotica and cerebration, suspicion and conviction, coincidence and missed connections, principle and pleasure; the right blend of light, heat, and noise. Encore. 

A longtime friend of and contributor to Conjunctions, C. D. Wright was one of her generation’s most iconic and influential poets. Her many books won her a host of major awards, including the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Griffin Prize, and a 2004 MacArthur Fellowship. Her collections One Big Self: Prisoners of Louisiana (Twin Palms Pub), with photographs by Deborah Luster, and One with Others (Copper Canyon) are passionate and ethical classics of documentary poetics.