Springtime starts and then it stops in the name of something new, and all the senses rise against this coming back to you.
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.
Finishing a documentary somewhere in the Sahara (trying to interview a rebel leader), he meets David Robinson, a gunrunner, staying in the room adjoining his at the hotel. The man dies of a heart attack; David Locke assumes his identity. Resolving to keep the appointments in Robinson’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 assassins, and rebel leaders. Appearing not to recognize the danger the assassins 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, we see the tree-lined road receding to the vanishing point: David is running away from his past.
With a little imagination (and a touch of grandiloquence), this image of the Girl (as many critics have noted) can be seen to resemble the angel in Paul Klee’s painting, Angelus Novus, which has become Walter Benjamin’s ‘angel of history’ (more on this below). David Locke, however, is so disengaged from the world—despite all his reporting on global conflicts—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 and small branches—as if celebrating—and we sense that his malaise, at least in part, has to do with his marriage (the house and garden, the wife wondering what’s going on).
Could the Girl have given him a way back to himself, 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 epigraph of this essay hints at Locke’s predicament; let us now examine it more closely. Springtime starts and then it stops: Locke’s springtime (new beginning, fresh start) was his assumption of Robertson’s identity; his ‘acceptance’ of an assassin’s bullet put a stop to it, and to his own life. In the name of something new: Locke’s quest for renewal got off to a daring start, and then quickly petered out: In Robertson’s skin, he remained the same old Locke (his ‘renewal’ was ‘in name’ only). All the senses rise against this coming back to you: As in every quest, what the seeker is really seeking is himself: ‘you’ is really ‘I’. Locke was seeking to find and affirm his individuality, uncorrupted by compromise with convention, be it journalistic or conjugal. However, he never attained sufficient distance to himself to realize what his frustration was really about. The result? When ‘all the senses rise against this coming back to you’, he did not fight back (for ‘senses’, read ‘habits’; for ‘you’, read ‘the uncorrupted me’). From an existential and psychological perspective, then, this is the key to understanding Locke’s predicament.
It is not easy to change oneself—we endlessly replay our traumas in new scenarios, hoping that, this time, the outcome will be different. Locke, however, is particularly stuck in a cycle of repetition. Even when he meets the Girl—someone who clearly is uncorrupted by convention, someone whose sparkling freshness testifies to the vitality of her being—he still cannot get out of his primary mode of expression: whining.
He is like a dog chasing its own tail, going round in circles, taking the tail for an enemy without instead of understanding the real trouble lies within. For Locke to break his cycle of repetition and start living, the Girl would have to have been more than an open invitation to stop whining. In terms of love, as I alluded to earlier, she’d have to have loved him a lot more.
‘You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink’: If he himself lacked the will to face his demons and do battle, no amount of love could have turned spring into summer for David Locke. The receding trees that speed into the vanishing point were not his past, as he believed, but his future: ‘No future’. By running away from himself, Locke sealed his fate. (Just like the girl in the horror story who barricaded herself in her house only to discover that the killer was already inside.)
Instead of fleeing his past, he needed to return to it. This, of course, is the foundational insight of psychoanalysis. ‘One must be an adult to have childhood memories’: Locke, lacking the courage to take by the hand the child he once was, spent his time tilting at the windmills of other people’s problems. ‘World-weary’ (a fashionable stance that makes one appear wise but quickly becomes boring to both oneself and others), he was stuck in a no-man’s land, neither responsible adult nor revisited child: ‘Nowhere Man’.
Dropping the premise of the film (‘Locke has lost the will to live’) but drawing on the material in it (‘Locke has journalistic skills’), we can imagine that he could have abandoned his documentary and turned to making (or writing) a fiction film. That would have required him to play, to explore, to indulge his fantasies and confront his fears—in a word, to create something from the stuff of himself. In so doing, he might have found a way to ‘re-present’ his experience via words and images that create an opening for self-transformation. Instead, failing to understand that the long way round (confronting oneself) is the shortest way there (being fully alive), he took a shortcut (David Robinson) that, inevitably, turned out to be a dead end.
Always whining, always at one remove from everyone and everything—the desert conflict, David Robinson, the Girl, wife, job, and above all, his own feelings—David Locke refused the possibilities his situation offered him to discover and assume his own desire. In so doing, he condemned himself to death-in-life—and then to death, period. Indeed, even in his own suicide, he played a passive role: the passenger passed without leaving a trace of his individuality. In the memory of those who crossed his path, he left nothing but a taste of his alienated state. In the desert of his life, David Locke’s desire—desire being that which keeps one alive—was not even a mirage.
‘Springtime starts and then it stops in the name of something new’: Despite the scintillating sun of the Sahara, despite the dazzling Mediterranean light, the season of The Passenger is winter.
From Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (NY: Schocken Books, 1969): 257-58
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.
Maria Schneider, in The Passenger, is like music: she simply is. ‘Is’ as in ‘being’: poise, presence, grace; ease, elegance, finesse. She plays the Girl, a young woman as comfortable in her skin as David Locke, the passenger, is not.
If the novel grants us direct access to someone else’s consciousness, film makes available to us someone’s presence, unmediated by being-for-others. In the simulacrum of being we call ‘real life’, these two privileged moments are extremely rare. Which is why I call Maria’s performance in The Passenger a gift.
In bed and by her side, Maria preferred women to men. The measure of happiness she found on that front is heartening, for after The Passenger she spent a lot of time in the ‘heaven where nothing ever happens’: heroin. In the desert of female parts in film she was offered the dust; disenchanted with cinema, she became a wanderer.
I recall, in 1996, how my heart sank when I saw Maria as the ‘madwoman in the attic’ in Zeffirelli’s Jane Eyre. That was a cruel bit of casting and, for me, a sign of Maria’s desperate state. Fifteen years later, at age 58, she was dead.
We see, then, that the intersection of presence and grace is unpredictable.
I, for one, will be forever grateful to Antonioni for giving Maria, in a film about the impossible, the part of the possible.
She played it beautifully, taking the side of being against the side of having, the side of interiority against the side of expression, and (to borrow a verse from Leonard Cohen), ‘the side that’s always lost against the side of heaven, the side of snake-eyes tossed against the side of seven’*.
Last Tango in Paris, Bertolucci
Maman / Putain, Eustache
Realm of the Senses, Oshima
Cul de Sac, Polanski
The Passenger, Antonioni
Damnation, Bela Tarr
Element of Crime, Lars von Trier
American Soldier, Fassbinder