The first film by Michaelangelo Antonioni that I ever saw was Blow-Up (a film that gets a passing mention in the Lake District Mystery I'm writing right now.) I was seventeen or so at the time and it was quite a memorable evening. Mainly because the film was screened by the film society jointly run by my school and the local girls' school. In those days, societies which overcame the segregation of our single-sex schools were very popular....
Anyway, I enjoyed my trip to watch Blow-Up, but I never got round to seeing The Passenger, which is perhaps Antonioni's most famous film. I've only just repaired this omission. The Passenger is sometimes described as a thriller, but that's a label so unhelpful as to be almost meaningless. And indeed, the glacial pace is distinctly unthrilling. But the basic idea is one that might well have come from Patricia Highsmith.
A journalist called Locke (Jack Nicholson) comes across Robertson, a businessman, while working on a documentary in Chad. The businessman dies suddenly (from a pre-existing condition) and Nicholson discovers the body. On an impulse, it seems, perhaps inspired by his resemblance to the deceased, Locke decides to switch identities with the dead man. He falsifies his passport and successfully becomes Robertson.
Among other things, he abandons his wife (Jenny Runacre), and finds himself embroiled in Robertson's murky business activities. He encounters a beautiful young woman (Maria Schneider) and they become lovers. But you can bet that if his purpose in becoming Robertson was to escape his old life and to find something better, he will be disappointed, to say the least. And so it proves. The film is beautifully shot, but the bleakness of its philosophy is depressing. I'm glad that I finally got round to seeing it, though. It's an interesting piece of movie-making, even if there's less to it than meets the eye or than its reputation suggests.
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