Turning the Camera Around to You: The Passenger and Objectivity vs. Subjectivity
The final shot of The Passenger, in which Locke (Nicholson) lies in bed as the camera moves past him.
The opening scene of Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1975 film The Passenger introduces us to the film’s protagonist by showing him wandering through a vast desert, in search of something completely unknown to the viewer. Despite taking place across numerous different countries, the film sees David Locke (Jack Nicholson) in mostly the same situation throughout: moving through life in search of something that feels completely unknown to the viewer, and sometimes even to the character himself. Placing the idea of identity into question, The Passenger effectively develops cinematic notions on objectivity versus subjectivity and the role of the viewer in watching the film through its careful and precise use of the camera.
While the plot of The Passenger may sound like a high-stakes adventure movie — a man at the edge of the world swaps identities with a corpse and traverses the globe on the run from government hitmen — it is hardly an action film. In fact, it may be the opposite, for most of the film simply follows Locke as he moves through the world in his new identity. There are no explosions, shootouts, or high-speed chases — just a man and his movements from place to place. There’s a feeling of separation between the viewer and the protagonist from the very beginning of the movie. In the first scene, Locke goes from person to person as he traverses the Sahara desert, looking for subjects to interview for a documentary about the Chadian Civil War. Of course, the viewer is not given any of this information and only learns this later from a conversation with Robertson, the man at Locke’s hotel whom he finds dead and whose identity he proceeds to steal. As Locke treks across the open Sahara looking for any sign of life, the camera looks with him, panning out into the desert. Just like Locke, the camera is scanning the horizon for any sign of life, any clue that might explain to the viewer what is going on in the scene. The audience searches for meaning across the emptiness but, like Locke, finds nothing. Unlike him, however, the viewer is completely devoid of context. The camera observes Locke mostly from a distance and rarely in close-up, and the viewer is forced to sit and observe as he struggles to find the person he was supposed to interview. By refusing to offer clear context, showing Locke from mostly a distance, and with camerawork that frequently wanders on its own, panning out across the horizon and moving independently of the character, the opening scene establishes Locke not as something for the viewer to attach themselves to but to merely observe.
As the plot progresses and Locke finds himself in search of some new life within the confines of Robertson’s identity, accompanied by a young student known only as “The Girl” (Maria Schneider), the camera is also in search of an identity. The camera follows Locke as he moves from city to city with only the context given from dialogue within these scenes (except for a few brief flashbacks). The film feels a bit like a documentary in this way, not concerned with explaining each decision to the viewer but instead with simply showing the character’s movements. It makes sense, as documentaries play a significant role in the film. In a scene where Locke’s wife Rachel (Jenny Runacre) observes footage shot by her husband in Chad for his documentary assignment, he interviews a guerrilla leader who questions the validity of Locke’s journalistic intentions. The guerrilla leader says, “Your questions are much more revealing about yourself than my answer would be about me,” before turning the camera around to show a visibly uncomfortable Locke. “Now, we can have an interview,” he says. By calling into question the legitimacy of Locke’s documentary footage, the scene questions the legitimacy of the entire documentary form. This scene can be taken even further, and asks if Locke’s subjective gaze is revealed by the documentary subject turning the camera around to face him, then who exactly is behind the camera that the viewer in the audience is watching? Throughout the film, the camera watches Locke and The Girl from seemingly impossible angles: a bird’s eye view as Locke dangerously leans out of a gondola, a low angle shot looking up from the road as The Woman leans out of a convertible, just for two examples. The point of view of the camera is not connected to any human perspective. This inhuman camera placement and the distance between the viewer and Locke is meant to “insist even more strongly on the presence of a new subjectivity, that of the director. The splitting of perspective between these two subjectivities thus makes us aware of the contingency of subjectivity itself, calling it into question” (Brunette, 134). The viewer understands the camera has a point-of-view of its own and the autonomy to choose where to look, even if the identity of the camera remains a mystery to the viewer. There is then created a distance between the viewer, the camera, and the characters of the film. The viewer observes the camera as it observes Locke.
The subjectivity of the camera’s observation of Locke’s travels is one aspect of the film that reveals the influence of neorealism on its cinematic style. Neorealist films, specifically from the Italian Neorealist movement of the 1940s and 1950s, characteristically focus on the every day, seemingly mundane events in the lives of its protagonists. These films depict their protagonists and their worlds from the perspective of an outsider, and with an emphasis on diegetic sight and audio, letting the viewer observe the characters as they go about their everyday lives. French philosopher Gilles Deleuze defines post-WWII cinema, specifically neorealism (as well as New Wave cinema), as “images with pure optical and sound situations,” and describes characters as passive observers with no link of action and reaction between the characters and the environment. The camera, in the case of The Passenger, is the outside perspective looking into the story, focusing on seeing and hearing Locke’s journey. By giving the camera its own subjectivity, however, the film takes the neorealist idea of the viewer being an outside observer even further and develops it by creating the distance between the viewer, the camera, and the characters. Not only is the viewer an outside observer to the story, they are also an observer of the camera’s gaze, which has a subjectivity of its own. The film is further influenced by the neorealist movement in that it emphasizes diegetic audio and visuals, and this is exemplified in the penultimate shot of the film: a nearly seven-minute long take that tracks out the window of Locke’s hotel room, into a courtyard, and finally turns around to face the hotel window from where it emerged, revealing Locke has been found dead. Seeing and hearing are crucial in this last scene, where the viewer is made to pay attention to the soft noises of cars, children playing, a man on a bench, The Girl wandering around, the Chadian hitmen arriving. The audience stares deeply at the blurred reflection in a glass pane of the Chadian agent, who enters Locke’s hotel room and appears in the doorway, looking for anything that could hint at what is going on outside of the camera’s view. In these moments, the viewer strives for something to find meaning in.
The penultimate shot of the film symbolizes the climax of both Locke and the film’s disorientation with their own identities. Before the shot, while in the hotel, Locke tells The Girl a story about a blind man who suddenly regains his sight and rejoices, only to become afraid and disillusioned after a few years upon realizing how much dirt and ugliness was in the world, and eventually commits suicide. This story mirrors Locke’s own journey through the film, adapting a new identity and feeling the freedom of possibility, but soon realizing that his newly adopted identity is no improvement to his original identity. The ugly truth that he cannot outrun himself and his subjectivity, no matter what identity he takes, causes him to become disillusioned with the world, like the blind man in his story. He refuses to keep moving through the world and knows that his past has caught up to him, accepting his fate by crawling into bed at the beginning of the long shot. It is within this shot that, perhaps, the camera itself also has a similar experience, and accepts its own subjectivity as an observer. The camera chooses to move towards the window instead of to Locke when he dies, away from the “ugliness” of the object of the film as he accepts his fate and death. The camera pushes out the window and faces back towards the hotel, where we finally see The Girl and Locke’s ex-wife discover his body. The movement of the camera as it goes outside and turns around 180 degrees to face the window mirrors the documentary footage that Locke shot described earlier, where the interview subject turns the camera to face Locke, saying “Your questions are much more revealing about yourself than my answer would be about me.” If Locke’s identity is revealed through the questions he asks in the interview, this could be applied to the identity of the camera as it turns to reveal Locke’s body through the window. Without Locke, the object of the film, to focus on, the camera is left disillusioned. As the camera movement mirrors the earlier documentary footage, the shot suggests that what the camera and the viewer choose to focus on in the film says more about the identity of the observer than it ever could about the identity of the subjects within the frame.
Brunette, Peter. “The Passenger (1975).” The Films of Michelangelo Antonioni. Cambridge University Press, 1998, pp. 127-146.