Michaelangelo Antonioni films can be difficult to understand, can be difficult to access. Antonioni is not Hollywood spectacle, there is nothing to distract the viewer from the sense that there is something occult going on, something hidden beyond the scene.
The central characteristic of Antonioni’s mature films, films such as The Passenger, have involved ‘narration by… intense concentration on the sheer appearance of things – the surface of the world as he sees it – and a minimization of explanatory dialogue’ (Chatman, 2). Antonioni’s method, using narrative and camera shots, leverage the power of causal oddity. This forces the viewer to fill in the gaps and thus, infer meaning. This essay will highlight examples of specific chance encounters and co-incidences in Antonioni’s film The Passenger and will explore the way these examples suggest an ‘unknown causality’ as referenced by Bordwell.
Chance encounters reoccur throughout The Passenger.
The film starts out with the journalist David Locke (the protagonist) seeking out Chad rebels. He is unsuccessful and returns dejected to the hotel, seemingly no closer to getting his story. Then Robinson enters the picture, co-incidentally the only other guest seen staying at the hotel. Robinson is a man of similar features, national origin and socioeconomic status to Locke… and yet he is also the opposite of Locke. Antonioni captures the essence of the distinction between these men in Frame 120 (Chapman, 186); the camera positions itself from a perspective that shows a mirror image of Locke looking down at Robinson. The mirror motif suggests the presence of a reversal, a negative to the positive and this reversal is emphasised by the lighting of the scene – ‘dead’ Robinson is reflected in light whilst ‘alive’ Locke is backlit, obscured in shadow. The image ironically suggests that Robinson and Locke are odd mirror images of each other, one active, the other passive though not in the way convention might dictate for here, Locke seems to be the ‘negative twin’ of Robinson. Locke is conveyed as dark, obscured and a passive agent (a journalist observing from the outside) whereas Robinson seems alive somehow, remains an active agent (an arms dealer still in the game). The irony is that Robinson, characterized as ‘active’ is dead by the time the viewer first sees him; the animated talking Robinson is only a hologram from Locke’s memory and yet one who, even in memory seems mysteriously engaging. Thus, Locke’s chance encounter with Robinson, though seemingly innocuous, is profound for it begs the question, who is taking over who?
In the myth of the doppelganger, someone cannot meet their doppelganger without dying, without annihilation. Antonioni’s use of the mirror and of the shadow, as evidenced in Frame 120, suggests that the film has psychoanalytic dimensions. Otto Rank, in his work The Double: A Psychoanalytic Study, describes how ‘the origin of the double in the shadow, and the mirror that symbolizes the entity beyond the corrupted body and fragile matter… is thus connected to mirror images and shadows, its immaterial double… its essence…’ (Vrbancic, 205). Here, the Doppleganger myth is in operation, one twin (Robinson) is dead, and yet the continuing legacy, the potency of Robinson as now animated by his remaining twin, Locke. Knowing the inevitability of the doppelganger myth it seems inevitable that Locke must also die (and in an existential sense, he already has). Indeed, the first chance encounter between Locke and Robinson is echoed again at the conclusion of the film and there are interesting co-incidences here. For example, again Locke finds himself in a dingy hotel room in the desert, his death is not viewed (the camera disinterested) and he dies alone; it is much like Robinson’s death.
Another co-incidence occurs, which upon reflection perhaps challenges the seeming co-incidences of Locke meeting the Girl in the first place. For the camera returns to the Locke’s room via the doorway where both ‘wives’, that is the Girl (referred to Mrs Robinson) and Locke’s wife Rachel, are standing. Though these two women don’t know each other, they are invisibly connected – through Locke and also, through their quest to ‘track him down’. Locke’s actual wife Rachel wants to find her husband to warn him and yet, in finding him realizes she ‘never knew him’ (Chatman, 185); Locke’s assumed wife, ‘the Girl’ wants to find the true identity to Locke, to the man who now calls himself ‘Robinson’. Antonioni does not make explicit the basis for the Girl’s curiosity about Locke, but the strange causality of their random encounters is suggestive that something much deeper might lie at the heart of her motivation.
Perhaps accepting that the Girl was actually Robinson’s wife (and the innocuous reference to her as Mrs Robinson was actually true, an ironic twist on the Hollywood hotel liaison convention) then a logical inference might be that she was searching for Robinson in parallel to Rachel searching for Locke. She could perhaps track Locke because, if she was his wife, ‘Robinson’s’ schedule might have been available to her. It is acknowledged that this is speculation, and yet despite the ambiguity, holding it for a moment up-ends the narrative with a glimpse of the truth behind the white noise, the random. The seeming co-incidence of Locke seeing the Girl in London might not have been completely random after all. In fact, Walsh has noted that the early non-diegetic appearance of the Girl in London corresponds precisely to her position in the scene in Spain where she and Locke first speak (Walsh, 7-10). Perhaps this deliberate re-iteration of the scene was constructed by Antonioni to illicit déjà vu and by the association of the déjà vu, give a determinism within the random.
Antonioni expresses co-incidence in space (the doppelganger deaths both occurring in same, though different spaces, i.e. desert hotels) and time (Locke ‘encountering’ the Girl in London and later, by chance, in Barcelona). But beyond the exterior, the physical, there is also co-incidence in memory. The scene when Locke is in the church in Munich, watching a wedding ceremony, is an example of this. The scene abruptly changes to Locke burning leaves and other domestic items in a bonfire in his suburban London garden; Locke’s wife Rachel then rushes outdoors to challenge him and, given the logic of the causality, the viewer assumes it is a flashback as, at that point in the film Locke’s wife believes him to be dead. The scene immediately cuts to Rachel standing fully dressed looking out her window at the yard; both Locke and the bonfire are absent. The inference is that both Locke and Rachel have the same flashback to the ‘bonfire incident’ at precisely the same moment – it may be a co-incidence or perhaps there is a psychic connection still established between them, despite that she has no basis to believe he’s alive (Chapman, 196).
Antonioni’s directional style of using the ‘wandering camera’ is considered by Bonitzer to reflect, ‘fascination with chance… the effects of chance, erratic traces, unclear trajectories…’ (Bonitzer, 262) and further Perry states that because of the camera’s self assertiveness and autonomy, ‘the area off screen becomes dynamized. Through The Passenger the viewer is led to anticipate that something surely must exist off-screen which, when it finally appears, will restore the narrative focus of the film’ (Perry, 4). Thus, Antonioni use of causal and spatial inference, through co-incidental character encounters and camera work respectively, suggests the presence of something real but not visible.
It is this presence of the intangible other, sensed but unseen, that gives a haunting quality to the film.
This quality is hardly random, for as Antonioni once said, ‘It was precisely by photographing and enlarging the surface of things around me that I sought to discover what was behind those things’ (Chapman, front). In The Passenger he offers us a glimpse beyond the surface to the ‘unknown causality’, to the links that invisibly connect us to each other.
Antonioni, Michael (Director), The Passenger. (1975). (Motion Picture) Compagnia Cinematografica Champion.
Bonitzer, Pascal. Desir desert (Profession: Reporter), Cahiers du cinema, nos 262-63, 1976.
Bordwell, David. Narration in the Fiction Film. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1985. 205-213. Print. [ISBN 0299101746]
Chatman, Seymour. Antonioni or, the surface of the world. Berkeley: U of California P, 1985. 182-202. Print. [ISBN 0520053419]
Haule, John, Ryan. Jung in the 21st Century, Volume Two Synchronicity and Science. Routledge, 2011. Print. [ISBN 780415578028]
Perry, Ted. Men and Landscapes: Antonioni’s The Passenger. Film Comment, 1975.
Rank, Otto. The Double: A Psychoanalytic Study. London: Maresfield Library 1989.
Walsh, Martin, The Passenger: Antonioni’s Narrative Design. Jump Cut 8 (August-September 1975).
Vrbancic, Mario. The Lacanian Thing, Psychoanalysis, Postmodern Culture and Cinema. Cambria Press, 2011. Print [ISBN 9781604977561]