Antonioni’s The Passenger as Lacanian Text

Antonioni’s The Passenger as Lacanian Text

Old but relevant.


In Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1975 film The Passenger, the main character, David Locke,[1] portrayed by Jack Nicholson, impulsively “trades in” his own life for that of another man who resembles him and who dies in an adjacent hotel room in Africa. Locke is attempting to escape the painful prison of his own life and enter the realms of possibility and enticing mystery represented by the life of another; in other words, he is trying to create reality from a common fantasy. He is trying to rewrite the narrative of his life, and he is hoping to “become” someone else, just as many moviegoers do vicariously while in the theater. Unfortunately he lies to himself and ignores the fact that any s uch trade, outside the seemingly magical environment of the cinema, is going to include the sometimes startling sensations associated not only with risk and change but with a different perspective, based on the history of the life one is stepping into; his escapism is also analogous to suicide, a rejection of one’s own history and possibilities. Locke’s story shows that lying to oneself by trying to live in what Jacques Lacan referred to as the Imaginary (a fantasy world) is even more perilous and self-d estructive than lying to others.

According to Antonioni, “The greatest danger for those working in cinema is the extraordinary possibilities it offers for lying” (in Samuels 31). In The Passenger, Rachel Locke asks her husband, David, a reporter (the film was originally titled “The Reporter”), why he did not point out that the president of an African nation was obviously lying during an interview. He replies, “Because those are the rules.” It is precisely because Antonioni himself breaks the rules of cinematic tradition and “grammar,” and because of the artful way he does so that The Passenger unmistakably achieves a “vision of the real,” not only in novelist/philosopher Iris Murdoch’s terms but in Lacan’s. In the process, the film does something even more important. Normally “the cinema . . . confines the spectator in an illusory identity, by a play of self-images” (Elsaesser 43); the film frame acts as a mirror wherein the viewer sees himself through some type of identification, usually with a character. By continually frustrating identification, Antonioni saves the audience from immersing themselves in the same type of “Imaginary plenitude” that ultimately proves fatal for Locke, and through the use of eccentric camera angles and unusual editing, Antonioni also demonstrates the possibility of new, healthier ways of seeing and living.

The film works as a powerful psychological allegory that fits the framework of Lacan’s primary matrix (Imaginary, Symbolic, Real) and even seems to be based on such a pattern, with Locke representing the Imaginary; his wife, Rachel, and his producer, Martin Knight, the Symbolic; and the Girl standing for the Real.[2] There are also three mirrors featured prominently in the film, each one a Lacanian text within the text. ()


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