BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM reports from the Wellington Film Society. This week: an existential end.

I’M STILL convinced Antonioni’s films can be reduced to three shots and an ending. However, it is fair to say The Passenger is much more beguiling than some of Antonioni’s other work, and hasn’t dated anywhere near as badly. In fact, it’s probably the definitive Antonioni film – full of philosophical, metaphysical, and semiotic concerns. It was also a film that spent decades in limbo due to its star, Jack Nicholson, owning the rights and keeping it tight. For a highly complex text, it’s also plain silly and humourless, but that doesn’t stop it being one of the highpoints of film modernism. You’ll probably need to write a PhD on it to fully unpack it.

David Locke (Nicholson) finds himself in a non-descript African country and struggling in his quest for documentary interviews. At his hotel, he finds another man, David Robertson, dead, and decides to take on Robertson’s persona, ‘killing’ himself off. He heads to Europe and does what Robertson had planned to do. On the way he meets “The Girl” played by Maria Schneider (who’s most famous for being Brando’s autocue/butter conditioner in Last Tango in Paris) and they set off together through Spain. Robertson/Locke is being chased by gun-runners, hitmen, policemen and Locke’s ex-wife as well.

Amongst other things, the film is about identity, about trying to escape the banality of everyday life, reincarnation, about being a passenger through life and not questioning the direction, and existential angst. It also questions the validity of cinema – the breaking points between fantasy and reality, the difference between construction and ‘truth’, the trust an audience places on narrative, continuity and on the image. (Part of these concerns no doubt stem from the fact that the film was co-written by Peter Wollen, a key semiotic film academic of the ‘70s, and husband to Laura Mulvey, one of cinema’s most influential theorists.)

Antonioni leaves a lot ambiguous and confounds narrative expectations. Is the girl Robertson’s real wife (how else would she have booked the room by showing her passport)? What happened in the end (in terms of character motivation etc.)? Or simply, “why?” in relation to most things that took place in the film. The film’s centrepiece is the penultimate shot of the film – a six minute long-take that moves from an interior to an exterior and back again (or life to death, or body to out-of-body, or anything really). It’s reminiscent of (and most certainly draws on) Michael Snow’s legendary 1967 avant-garde (or “structural”) film Wavelength where the camera’s relentless tracking shot ignores an on-screen murder in a quest to destroy 3-D space, challenging the very concept of the ‘truth’ of the cinematic medium. Antonioni’s shot is the type of shot that film students ought to see from a technical/critical point of view – and just more evidence of the fact that Antonioni has moments in his films that are simply mind-boggling. The Passenger is probably a fitting summation and tribute to the recently departed director, a maddening, complex and outrageous filmmaker who challenged and infuriated audiences his entire career.