On Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger

By Richard Jonathan

In Sprague’s list of his ten favourite films that he gives Marietta as she leaves him, The Passenger  is number 7.

Jack Nicholson as David Locke, Maria Schneider as the girl

David Locke, midway on his life’s journey, has had enough. Enough of his job as a television journalist, where the questions he asks and the answers he gets both ring hollow. Enough of his marriage, in which all words have become vain and tender gestures impossible. Enough of the world, the world where there’s nothing new under the sun.

On assignment somewhere in the Sahara (to interview a rebel leader), he meets a gunrunner staying in the room adjoining his at the hotel. The man dies of a heart attack; David assumes his identity. Resolving to keep the appointments in the gunrunner’s diary, he sets out on a new life.

Things become complicated, with not only David’s wife, Rachel, hard on his heels, but also a journalist colleague, government agents and rebel leaders. Appearing not to recognize the danger the government agents represent, David puts all his efforts into evading his wife and colleague. In this, he solicits the help of an architecture student (known only as ‘the girl’) that he meets in Barcelona. She will become his guardian angel.

But David is too far gone in his death wish to recognize that angels can bring the promise of a new life just as much as they can guide one to one’s death. As he and the girl drive south from Barcelona, she asks him, ‘What are you running away from?’. He answers, ‘Turn your back to the front seat’. We see the face of the girl as she kneels on the back seat of the convertible, the tree-lined road receding to the horizon: David is running away from his past.

With a little imagination (and a touch of grandiloquence), this image of the girl can be seen to resemble the angel in Paul Klee’s painting, Angelus Novus, which has become Walter Benjamin’s angel of history. David Locke, however, is so disengaged from the world that it is not history he is fleeing from. What, then? In a flashback, we see him in his garden in London, gleefully making a bonfire of autumn leaves—as if he himself is being reborn in the fire—and we sense his malaise has to do with his marriage (the house and garden, the wife looking out the window).

Could the girl have given him a way back into the world? She travels light, but the lightness of her touch belies the relevance of her remarks: Intuitively, she understands David and gives him sure guidance. But David cannot bring himself to see the tenderness between them as an opportunity for renewal. Passively he awaits death, which duly comes in the form of government assassins.

At the end of film, the police inspector asks Rachel, ‘Do you recognize him?’. She answers, ‘I never knew him’. To the same question, the girl answers, ‘Yes’.

A little love can go a long way. But sometimes it’s just not enough.

THE ANGEL OF HISTORY

By Walter Benjamin

Theses on the Philosophy of History, IX

Paul Klee, Angelus Novus, 1920

A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

From Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (NY: Schocken Books, 1969): 257-58