By John Orr.
The Silence(Tystnaden) (1962) and The Passenger(1974) are two of the great modernist films of their period, and two of the most enduring. From the standpoint of a new century neither is dated and both are richly rewarded by DVD rewatching. Yet their genesis lies in a previous era to their own, that of French classical cinema and the rise of existentialism in philosophy and writing. The former produced one of France’s great film directors, Marcel Carné, and the latter one of its great modern writers, Albert Camus. This is all the more remarkable since neither France nor French culture is conspicuously present in either picture we have mentioned. The Silence is an intimate chamber drama set in a fictitious eastern European country and The Passenger takes place in two continents, Europe and Africa, and four named countries – Chad, England, Germany and Spain. While both are films about journeys to foreign countries, the methods of filming are utterly different. In essence Bergman delivered a tight interior shoot at Råsunda studios while Antonioni’s film for MGM was a logistically complex location feature that added one extra (non-diegetic) country, Algeria, in its shoot for the desert sequences.
The French connection
If there is a tilting towards Carné’s romantic fatalism in Bergman’s early films like It Rains on our Love (Det regnar på vår kärlek) (1946) we could argue that The Silence, which is much more abstract, echoes the fatalism with little trace of the romance. Like Quai des brûmes (Port of Shadows) (1938), the latter is also a brilliant dissection of jealousy en famille with a subtextual prehistory. Carné’s jealous guardian Michel Simon is horrified by his young ward’s attraction to Jean Gabin because, we guess, it exacerbates a forbidden desire for the teenage girl in his charge (and may echo transgressions already committed). Bergman achieves the same with Ingrid Thulin as Ester, a jealous older sister, humiliated by Anna (Gunnel Lindblom), and her sibling’s desire for a complete stranger in a foreign city. If we take the interior look of Bergman’s picture, we can see that Carné’s legacy, complete with hotel mise-en-scène permeates its dream-like hotel atmospherics (at which the Frenchman specialized) and its sense of an enclosed, designed world full of sharp, off-kilter detail. In both its look and its feel The Silence also references Hôtel du Nord (1938) and Le Jour se lève (1939).
If, on the other hand there is a tilting to Camus in The Passenger it is because the North African crisis of its Anglo-American protagonist echoes those in Camus’s famous novel L’Étranger (The Outsider) (1937) and his desert stories of L’Exil et le royaume (Exile and the Kingdom) (1957). Yet we can easily switch things around. Antonioni started his film career as an assistant director for Carné during the war on Les Visiteurs du soir (1942), and as a post-war critic in Italy was to acclaim several of Carné’s films in a period when the Frenchman’s reputation was already on the slide (Turk 1989: 197, 296). Bergman, meanwhile, directed Camus’s existential power-drama Caligula early in his stage career and towards the end of the 1950s was in negotiation with the independent Hecht-Lancaster company and with Camus himself to direct an adaptation of La Chute (The Fall) for the big screen, a project aborted by the Frenchman’s fatal car crash in 1960 (Bergman 1973: 26–27).
It is a fascinating crossover. After the Second World War the young Bergman proclaimed Carné’s poetic realism as the way forward for cinema, while as late as 1994 at the Göteborg Film Festival the veteran Bergman still named Quai des brûmes in his eleven all-time favourite films (Bergman 1994). Likewise, Bergman has also expressed his dislike of the films of Jean Renoir, Carné’s close rival, who openly denounced Quai des brûmes as ‘fascist’ on its release in pre-war France (Andrew 1995: 267–68). In his 1968 interviews with Swedish critics for Bergman on Bergman the Swedish director acknowledged the impact of existentialism on his work and claimed Camus’s version of that fashionable but elusive philosophy to be more ‘refined’ than Sartre’s (Bergman 1973: 12–13). With Antonioni we can explore a different configuration. What he shares in common with Carné is the designed architectural look of his images. While Carné’s studio films are usually an atmospheric studio abstraction from city locations – a Le Havre, for example, that is half real and half imagined – Antonioni is master of the location shoot that renders strange the actual physiognomy of a living city – Milan in La Notte (1961), Rome in L’Eclisse (1962) and London in Blow-Up (1966). While Antonioni fuses Carné with the architectural look of neo-realism, The Silence, on the other hand, crosses Carné with the Kammerspiel effect of the Scandinavian masters – Ibsen, Strindberg and Dreyer. Yet both modernist directors then go on to transcend their sources. They move away from the staged melodrama of classical film into a world of oblique signs where plotlines are never clear and strangeness overpowers the familiar, a world that is existential and uncanny at the same time.
The Camus paradigm
Here the literary writing of Camus offers a bridge between the classical and the modern in the culture of the last century because at its best it explores the abiding centrality of strangeness in modernity, and does it on a terrain that is deceptively familiar. Camus specializes in defamiliarizing the natural object or the natural condition, rendering it strange with a calm and blinding lucidity. In L’Étranger Mersault leads a humdrum life in Algiers, yet fails to grieve over his mother’s death and commits murder for no clear reason, as an acte gratuite. There is a chilling edge to Mersault’s banal existence ending in that murder, which has a universal resonance.
Both in his fiction and stage plays, Camus’s existential view of the human condition is not humanistic – as many believe and he himself claimed – but thoroughly Nietzschean in its agonistic vision of the operation of power. It was Sartre who reassured us in his acclaimed post-war essay that existentialism was a ‘humanism’ (Sartre 1946). Camus goes in the opposite direction. Plays like Caligula, Le Malentendu (Cross Purpose) and Les Posédés (The Possessed) take the spectator to the very abyss of nothingness, through a calculated strategy of probing the limits of nihilism. His fiction, meanwhile, cues us into its deadly obsessions through its titling – strangeness and The Outsider, the doomed kingdom of North African exile in Exile and the Kingdom, the sardonic, existential fallenness of La Chute (The Fall). In all of these texts the dynamics of power are Nietzschean, menacing and fatal.
Antonioni and Bergman focus on different spheres of the Camus paradigm. Bergman explores the power dynamics of troubled intimacy that affects sisters in a forbidding hotel in a foreign land. He moulds his narrative, obliquely, as a Cold War fable. The existential strangeness of a hostile country on the brink of war is a measure for the outwardly assured but inwardly troubled Bergman of the time, of God’s ‘silence’ in a world without transcendent values. If Bergman’s film has a vaguely northern European feel to it, the Mark Peploe screenplay for Antonioni looks south in its take on the complex power relations in the new Africa of the 1970s. Thus the estranged colonial subject of Camus’s North African fiction, firmly pied noir, has been replaced a generation later by the ‘impartial’ anglophone reporter on roughly the same terrain. While Camus’s poor French colonials cling to landscapes that fascinate and alienate in equal measure, the postcolonial case is different. Antonioni’s reporter is upended by his logos of BBC neutrality, the new British quest for ‘objectivity’ that is meant to signify the absolute end of colonial power and a new enlightened positioning, but is febrile to say the least. For Locke (Jack Nicholson) follows the pattern of Mersault’s double exile, estranged from North Africa but also from his homeland (in this case England not France), his deranged desert epiphany mirrors the trauma of Camus’s French evangelical missionary in ‘Le Renégat ou un esprit confus’ – ‘The Renegade or a Confused Mind’ – kidnapped by fetishists in a desert town of salt; but it also echoes the salesman’s ‘unfaithful’ wife in ‘La Femme adultère’, who escapes at the dead of night from their hotel in a remote fortress town, to experience orgasmic communion with the desert and the stars. A common thread runs through these contrasting situations. Oblique power games are intimately connected with a breakdown of language: equivalence of foreign land and foreign tongue, dislocation in voice and image. The first hotel sequence of The Silence, the first desert sequence in The Passenger make it clear that not only are the voices foreign, but also the culture’s visual signs. In both, the foreigners use sign language to communicate with locals but do so uncertainly and with little success.
Hotel passions: Carné and Bergman
These modernist departures are compelling because they retain Carné’s trope of hotel destiny while utterly transforming the sensibility. While the hotel room remains the key site of fate for Bergman it is no longer the site of romantic doom. In Carné we are transfixed in the hotel room that is the last haven of desperate lovers Jean (Jean Gabin) and Nelly (Michèle Morgan) before the fugitive Gabin perishes or by the daily dramas of the Hôtel du Nord, where Arletty is finally shot to death in her room. No contrast is greater between Bergman and Carné than this: the morning-after scene between Jean and Nelly in Quai des brûmes, their poignant leave-taking before he boards ship for Venezuela, and the steamy, oppressive pick-up sequence in The Silence where in defiance of Ester, her dying sister, Anna picks up a predatory waiter (Birger Malmsten) and later makes love to him in a room down the hotel corridor. In Carné’s film, Gabin is the rock-like male subject, tough fugitive and army deserter on the run whose fate we hypnotically follow. In Bergman’s film, Malmsten as the opportunistic cafe waiter, who had played ersatz Gabin roles in earlier films like It Rains on our Love and Three Strange Loves (Törst) (1949), gives his best performance for Bergman a decade later when he transforms Gabin into pure object, when he objectifies the icon as a voiceless object of female desire, a blank predator. In the realm of God’s silence this bleak film inhabits, the echo of human perfidy is to be found in those tactical silences of calculated lust, which Malmsten calibrates to perfection.
Bergman thus replaces Carné’s doomed romanticism with a tight claustrophobic power play. The quartet of two warring sisters, bemused son and his mother’s silent lover in proximate hotel rooms is a veritable antechamber of hell, Bergman’s Huis Clos. Here Bergman uses narrow recessional shots, both in the long hotel corridors but also in the sisters’ adjoining rooms where he often shoots in deep-focus from Ester’s bed through the open partition door to the far mirror over Anna’s dressing table. The mise-en-scène is so totally interior (and studio-bound) there is not one exterior shot of the hotel in which the two sisters and young boy are caged. In this drastic economy of scale any homage to Alexandre Trauner, Carné’s great set designer of street exteriors, is conspicuous by its absence. We should also note the poetic harshness of Sven Nykvist’s high-contrast photography, in complete contrast to the soft oneiric diffusions of light in Carné’s Le Havre of mist and shadow. Bergman’s monochrome extremity is pitiless and takes no prisoners.
Gabin and Nicholson: the fugitive kind
If The Silence is indebted to Carné’s atmospherics and hotel-room destiny, theme-wise The Passenger owes Carné an even greater debt (though how conscious this is, we do not know). In Quai des brumes Gabin, the army deserter, plans to escape France by sailing to Venezuela by taking another man’s identity through doctoring the passport of a painter (Robert Le Vigan) he has met in the port and who subsequently drowns in a freak accident. Near the start of The Passenger Locke (Jack Nicholson), after his breakdown epiphany when searching for desert rebels he fails to find, decides to become a fugitive by doctoring the passport of a look-alike Englishman, Robertson (Chuck Mulvehill) who has died suddenly in their remote Chad hotel. He then abdicates his identity as reporter and assumes, as he later finds out, the dead man’s identity as gunrunner and its grave risks. In both cases, we see an attraction of opposites in the transfer: fugitive soldier/modern artist, television reporter/arms dealer. In Carné’s film the subterfuge briefly works to move on the plot: but in Antonioni’s existential travelogue it slowly and agonizingly hives apart and becomes the subject of the film. Everyone – friends, police, secret agents, ex-wife and current lover – is after Locke in the famous long take at the Hotel de la Gloria in Osuna. The slow forward shot out of his barred hotel window which quickens as it turns 180 degrees to film the window from the outside, shows Locke’s past catching up with him, as the burnt-out reporter who has sought freedom in subterfuge is finally trapped by what he dearly wished to escape, the baggage and ballast of his former life. Released from the failed identity he has shed, he is kidnapped by its clear residues and killed by the fatal risks of the one he has taken in its place.
If Bergman’s nameless waiter objectifies the figure of Gabin, Antonioni’s reporter retains a subjective, Gabin-like iconography in Nicholson’s brilliant acting but the film also objectifies him by reinventing him and at the same time dissecting his past profession with a clinical, documentary eye. This is mirrored precisely in the archive film clip watched by his estranged wife, Rachel and closest friend, Ian Hendry: in it, Locke’s interview-subject, an African witch doctor, suddenly turns the camera round on Locke himself in the middle of the reporter’s interview. With the reinvented Locke the paradox becomes foundational: the narrative forges a persona who is truly existential but only by being someone other, by creating for himself a virtual non-self. While Gabin’s Jean is quick in a crisis to react, to raise his voice or use his fists, he is solidly knowable. Nicholson’s reinvented Locke (now Robertson) is cool, affable, seemingly at peace with ‘himself’. As a non-person his crisis appears to be over.
His change of identity is a change to calmness after his reporter’s rage-epiphany in the desert, or the flashback-cued book-burning in the garden of his London home, that signifies self-destruction and the end of his marriage. Perhaps calmness is the last thing we would expect from someone facing the dangers of his adopted profession – trading in guns to African rebels. Yet danger gives him an inner peace where professional ‘objectivity’ has unhinged him and as he comes, ironically, face to face with the political subjects who had eluded him in his former life. There is a fleeting likeness in the ending of the two pictures that should also be noted: the choosing of fate. The fugitive Jean seals his by returning impulsively from the portside ship bound for Venezuela to say goodbye to Nelly one last time. On his return we see him shot in the street by his love-rival, gangster Pierre Brasseur. Bound for the ferry that will take him to Morocco and thence perhaps, to his point of origin in the Chad desert, Locke seals his fate by electing to go en route via the Hotel de la Gloria, marked as the last assignment in Robertson’s diary. He keeps his alter ego’s appointment when he has no need to, and dies. The shot that kills him (if indeed there is one) is heard offscreen when he too is offscreen in the middle of the penultimate take. It is a bold double absence. In Quai des brûmes we witness a full-on melodramatic climax: in The Passenger the camera is pointing in the other direction.
How uncanny is Freud’s ‘Uncanny’?
So much has been written about Freud’s version of the uncanny there seems little point in adding to it. But let us consider this. The key illustration his essay gives the reader from his own life is highly scenic, highly visual: it evokes a landscape we might associate with De Chirico or later with Antonioni. Walking one hot summer afternoon in the deserted streets of a southern Italian town, Freud had lost his sense of direction and returned (involuntarily?) three times to the same labyrinthine part of town where the streets were narrow and ‘nothing but women with painted faces were to be seen at the window’. ‘I found myself in a quarter,’ he comments tortuously, ‘of whose character I could not remain long in doubt’ (Freud 1985: 359). This uncanny repetition of the same not only conceals unspoken desire (amusing here where the joke is on Freud) but also evokes in his failure to escape the labyrinth ‘the sense of helplessness experienced in some dream states’ (Freud 1985: 359). His presence now conspicuous in the quarter of disrepute, eventually he does escape, making his way back to the town piazza with great relief. But the point is made. In the off-kilter perspectives of De Chirico’s paintings, their ‘making strange’ of classical design that Antonioni often injects into his cinematic staging of Italian townscapes, is a sense of the familiar made unfamiliar – the classical, transparent and reassuring now angular, threatening, asymmetrical and yet still a version of the same, of what we think we know. And it is dream-like: it does convey helplessness because it does concern the return of the same. It is, in a word, uncanny.
Here, Bergman is not far off, yet his uncanny is very interior. In The Silence Anna’s disconcerting venture into the bowels of the city looks in his mise-en-scène like a Freudian nightmare the jealous Ester might have had in the confines of her airless hotel room, fearing her sister’s desire but helpless to prevent it. And Bergman’s version of the uncanny, of the familiar as strange or vice versa? The troupe of performing dwarfs which son, mother and sister all see separately in different contexts, a precise tripartite formation. They are collectively the key link between the hotel and the city. In performance they are unsettling, but otherwise they are ordinary – apart of course from their size. While Anna sees them onstage and Johan in their hotel room, Ester sees them at the end of the long jealous encounter with Anna which leaves her shattered. In yet another deep-focus shot of the hotel corridor, they are seen ambling back towards her from their cabaret gig, their costumes in disarray, intent on nothing more sinister than a good night’s sleep. The return of the repressed? Yes, with a bittersweet bathos. They pass the disconsolate Ester in the corridor and politely bid her goodnight. As the sisters’ intimacy moves from bearable to unbearable, the dwarfs offset the stretched emotions of the chamber drama by heading in the opposite direction, from the strange to the familiar.
For Antonioni the uncanny matches exterior to interior. It is an architectural trope that resonates through his Italian trilogy L’Avventura (1960), La Notte and L’Eclisse. Here in The Passenger it is less central, except at key moments. One is Locke’s double sighting of the twice-seated Girl (Maria Schneider) who claims to be an architecture student, first near a brutalist 1970s apartment block in Bloomsbury, then in the grand Modernista lobby of Gaudi’s Palais Guell in Barcelona. Another uncanny moment is Locke and Robertson as lookalike anglophone professionals in the same remote hotel in Saharan Africa. But the main, less obvious moment of the uncanny is the actual doubling of Locke’s fateful hotels (among the many hotels of his long journey), the run-down hotel full of flies in the Chad oasis where the reporter swaps identities with the deceased gunrunner (how in fact did he die?), matched with the Hotel de la Gloria where Locke meets his end, and thus repeats the fate of his double. Since these occur right at the start and finish of the picture, they create an unusual and unexpected circular effect. The film may lack the visceral circularity of Vertigo (1958) or Lost Highway (1997) but its circular effect creeps up on the spectator unawares, creating an uncannily delayed reaction.
Before we return to the matching of hotels, let’s backtrack a little. By shedding his unwanted skin, Locke hoped to embrace an open world where any destination, Dubrovnik or Barcelona, is as good as any other. But by getting under the skin of his new persona he is drawn back inexorably to the world he has abandoned. If any film has nailed the puzzle of free will and determinism that afflicts us all at some point in our lives, then this is it. Locke thus appears to inhabit the open terrain of Europe, crossing frontiers at will, only for his past to catch up with him and box him into a corner. He is both a free spirit imitating a bird in flight on the cable car above the harbour in Barcelona and a captive spirit caged like one of the birds we see in the market stalls on the Ramblas. At the same time it is his choice, with the apparent surety of the girl at his side – perfidious romance indeed – to take a second chance on Africa. In other words, if he escapes Osuna then the open desert awaits but then, because his cover is already blown there is no escape, no real either/or, no sanctuary. The cage is invisible but it is still there.
One of the clues to circularity lies in a specific sign of the ‘uncanny’, a crucial detail, the identical look and design of the door panelling in the two hotel interiors. Ingeniously, art director Piero Poletto makes the doors and corridors of the Chad and Osuna hotels facsimiles even though their interior colours differ. Indeed the hotels mainly contrast. Like Bergman’s hotel in The Silence, the Chad hotel has no real exterior look. Conversely the Osuna hotel defines itself through a truly uncanny exterior. And here, like Trauner’s unnerving pencil-thin apartment block for Le Jour se lève, the Poletto design gives us something both naturalistic and surreal at the same time. We think memorably of the fugitive Gabin holed out in his top-floor apartment of Trauner’s studio edifice. But Antonioni’s white stucco facade is basically single storey with an attic room and looks more like the frontage of a tiny Andalucian town house on a dusty piazza (which it probably was before the director commandeered it for his movie since, in its favour, it was opposite the stadium of a disused bullring). It is in fact a strange, made-over hotel on a deserted piazza not in Osuna but in Almeria, the arid region further east where Antonioni shot most – if not all – of his Andalucian sequences and many of his African sequences too. Indeed the first question the spectator asks on seeing the compact exterior is ‘Where are all the rooms?’ There only seem to be two bedrooms, the adjoining rooms in which Locke and the Girl are staying. Thus the hotel has a truncated look, too squat and small, just as Trauner’s ‘tenement’ in Le jour se lève is too thin and tall. It is that minor deviation from the norm that plants a seed of doubt in our minds about the reality of what we see.
Love is strange
Quai des brûmes is a love story, fleeting and tragic. The Silence and The Passenger pose instead the complex question of betrayal, the former openly, the latter obliquely. Betrayal is everywhere in the movies, but here there are powerful variations. And it could be argued that they come from that other French source to link the two films, the fiction of Camus. The most striking instance of sexual betrayal Camus has evoked comes in ‘La Femme adultère’ (‘The Adulterous Wife’) which opens L’Exil et le royaume. Like The Passenger it is a desert story, a cold December bus journey by a French-Algerian couple to an oasis town on the southern high plateau: but also a hotel story, since the village hotel where they stay is the pivotal space around which the action revolves. It is also a desert fort town, a Legion town, for it is on the parapet of the fort overlooking the desert that Janine experiences orgasmic epiphany. In what may be pure coincidence, we should remember that Antonioni shot his opening Chad sequence at Fort Polignac in southern Algeria.
The narrative key lies in the nature of the wife’s ‘adultery’. Infidelity is not congress with another person but with a place and a landscape of the Algerian interior that at first sight is bleak and forbidding but then is transformed, for the middle-aged wife, into an unlikely site of desire. True, in The Outsider the egocentric Mersault has felt that in making love to his girlfriend he is also making love to the earth beneath her. And earlier, Janine has been fascinated by and drawn an encampment of distant nomads on the desert plain. But nothing prepares us for this. It is an extraordinary leap. As Brian Fitch comments ‘What more solipsistic enterprise could be devised than that of an act of adultery committed in the absence of any other person but oneself?’ (Fitch 1988: 122, original emphasis).
In one of the few stories that Camus has framed through the eyes of a woman, there are multiplying forms of strangeness that Janine experiences: the bitter wind and winter cold of the desert on the bus ride, the self-contained world of Arabs in the interior shrouded in their burnouses, and the disagreeable pork and wine of their meal in the French-owned hotel that is an uncanny oasis within an oasis, an outpost of French cooking in a rural Muslim culture. The Silence also fuses foreignness and betrayal. Ester cannot understand the hotel waiter, who speaks none of the major European languages. The dwarfs that Anna watches in the cabaret where she sees the copulating lovers, also stay at her hotel but speak Spanish. Earlier they have performed for the wide-eyed Johan in their hotel room but then dressed him in a bride’s costume, a weird ritual with paedophile overtones. Estranged language is thus linked, incrementally, in Bergman’s slow-burning narrative, to estranged desire.
In both story and film, infidelity arises out of the trauma of the foreign. Pantheistically, Janine embraces the desert and the sky, Anna more materially, the foreign male body. But each has its own special solipsism. In Camus’s story a double estrangement operates – the couple from the culture and landscape of the interior but also from each other. By the middle of the night when Janine escapes the hotel, husband and wife are barely on speaking terms, barely communicating. Theirs is a dying relationship that the journey has finally made defunct. In The Silence Bergman tunes up that estrangement-unto-death through a minimal but powerful language of visual gesture. Prior to Anna’s ‘escape’ from the hotel the two sisters are barely communicating. Through an elaborate set of close shots and mirror shots Bergman begins to generate a turning axis from rather than towards, a nexus of deflected bodies and deflected gazes, in one sequence mediated by the hapless Johan who physically bisects the distance between them at the partition door, looking in vain from one to the other for some shred of meaning in his disconcerting life.
If Janine commits adultery with a foreign landscape, Bergman’s treatment of betrayal is less metaphysical but more ambiguous. He allows us to see Anna’s open betrayal of Ester with the voiceless waiter but then poses the question: ‘Betrayal of what?’ Are, or were, the sisters incestuous? Or is one just cloyingly possessive of the other? And if so, what constitutes possession? Or do they just have to hate and humiliate in order to love each other all the more? This is what Kieslowski suggests is at the core of Bergman’s film, the passage from hatred and humiliation into love as Anna bursts into tears (Kieslowski 2000: 421). The vexed intimacy of the two sisters has, for sure, an undertow of strange love. But does it survive? Drunk and dying, the older sister is left behind in the city. Anna’s act of crying then seems an act of expiry, the death of a strange, perverse love. At the end when the elderly hotel waiter and Johan both care for her sister, Anna contemptuously and triumphantly rejects her. Ester, horrified by the prospect of dying alone in a foreign city she does not understand, leaves Johan a letter, that he reads on the train home and cannot understand either, called ‘Words in a Foreign Tongue’. This is just about the toughest of all Bergman’s endings. His judgement is so harsh as to be God-like and he seems an omniscient auteur usurping the role of that pitiless God and his ‘silence’ that is ostensibly the subject of his film. He will not intervene to save a solitary dying woman he has fondly created.
Antonioni’s film seems the complete opposite, an intimacy of complete strangers, not estranged siblings: it blithely ignores the question of betrayal altogether. Maria Schneider is just a beautiful young woman passing through who happens to be in the right place at the right time. This is adventure-romance flattened out into a languorous road movie where she takes everything as it comes, the open impulse of an impressionable girl hooked up with a man on the run. It is the story in the title, of the existential passenger who just goes along for the ride in a bright white convertible with a plush red interior. Or is it? The Girl’s timing of entrances and exits really does seem to be too impeccable. Like Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959) she helps a fugitive to escape, but Hitchcock’s heroine has another agenda as a CIA double agent, which soon becomes apparent. Yet there is a lingering ambiguity. For Eve is the one who delivers Thornhill (Cary Grant) to the prairie stop in the middle of nowhere with its buzzing crop-duster that is inches away from taking his life. Here, it is the Girl who persuades Locke to keep his last appointment. Architecture student she may be but who exactly is she?
We never get to know. She appears to epitomize Antonioni’s degree zero ideal of film character (which the treatment of Locke of course absolutely contradicts) where figures are what they do onscreen, with no past to constrain them. Yet eventually she helps deliver her lover to his death, seemingly by chance. We have to ask then, is that really so? After all, there are no clear signs of duplicity and the film creates an intimacy between Locke and the Girl that is marked by its gentle humour and sensuous aura of calm; almost asexual at times in its delicacy and tenderness. There is none of the anguish the director had evoked in his work with Monica Vitti. Word has it that Maria Schneider did not want to do any explicit sex scenes after the notoriety surrounding Last Tango in Paris (earlier, Gunnel Lindblom had objected to doing naked sex scenes in The Silence), and perhaps this was a blessing in disguise since in his later films Antonioni does not do sex scenes well. The single instance of the couple naked in their hotel room is a distant long shot through the bedroom window. It is precise, discreet and justified. At the same time it appears that close in-room shots of the naked couple making love were filmed and then cut from the final version (Chatman & Duncan 2004: 140–41). In retrospect the decision seems right. For this is flight romance with long poignant moments of tranquillity, a strange, enduring love. And yet…
The Girl does seem to betray him. This is one reading that never leaves the viewer once the seed of suspicion is planted, even though this reading is never clinched by the penultimate shot. The field, mysteriously, remains open. In the film’s poetics of repetition the seven-minute shot echoes the dynamics of the early desert sequence where Locke, disoriented by the heat, the colours and intense light, comes up against the limits of his vision. The desert out-of-frame movement of distant figures into visual range – and off out again – confuses him: Antonioni’s decentred editing supplements the effect. It is a trope the director repeats in his final sequence shot, where the enclosed, dusty piazza becomes a facsimile of the open desert. As one figure/object exits the frame, there is a brief void before the next figure/object enters. If Locke cannot place himself in his visual field, then neither as an audience can we place him or what he sees.
The out-of-window shot with Locke lying on his bed is very different. It is a virtual POV shot, a speculative sequence-shot of what Locke might have seen had he gone to the window. Yet it is more, a visual field flanked by the disused bullring opposite, which he might have encountered if like a bird he could fly out through the window and open out his field of vision to a new level of discovery. At the same time it is nothing of the sort. Curtailed at first by the frame of the barred window the camera’s vision outside of the bars is equally curtailed by its rectangular frame, puncturing the illusion of ocular freedom. For sure, Locke’s curiosity is already aroused. ‘What can you see?’ he had asked the Girl earlier as she looks out the same window. She briefly tells him, outlining the scene before going back to her room, then walking outside to become a figure on the dusty square she has just described to him.
The mystery of the sequence-shot: The Passenger and Hidden
The seven-minute shot captures the following events as the camera moves slowly from the foot of Locke’s bed towards the barred window of the room and then out into the piazza. We see an old man with a dog sitting by the wall of the bullring. A driving-school learner car circles the piazza in front of the bullring then moves off. The Girl comes into frame and then turns back to look at Locke’s window before walking off left on the diagonal out of frame. A young boy throws stones at Locke’s window then runs off when the old man scolds him. A white Citroën draws up with the two thuggish agents (one black, one white) who had earlier kidnapped Robertson’s rebel contact. It parks half out of frame as the camera nears the window. The two men get out. The white agent motions to the black agent to go into the hotel; then he gets back in the car and drives it completely out of frame left. There is a radio in the distance, a trumpet, traffic noises, the sound of footsteps and slamming doors. In the midst of the hubbub one of the offscreen bangs could be a gunshot – or it could just be a door slamming.
The Girl moves back into shot again in the distance just in front of the bullring. The white agent also moves into shot again just outside the window and looks in, as she had done moments earlier. He then sees her and turns back to approach her. We cannot hear distinctly what is said between them. He then returns to the car out of frame left and drives it towards the hotel entrance out of frame right. We hear it stop, a door slam and the sound of it driving off. (We presume here the black agent has got back in the car again.) In the distance the Girl goes up to the old man and talks to him, perhaps to ask him what he has seen of the car’s occupants. He gesticulates towards the hotel. The camera is now through the window as we hear a siren. A police car speeds into the piazza and The Girl goes to meet it. She indicates Locke’s room to the cops. The camera now advancing outside the room pans right and follows their rapid movement back towards the hotel entrance. Another police car arrives with Locke’s ex-wife, Rachel (Jenny Runacre) and brakes sharply near the hotel entrance. Now turned back through 180 degrees the camera pans right again to film the Girl inside the hotel: she is now trying to enter Locke’s room from her own room through a connecting door, which is locked. She goes back into the corridor to join Rachel, the inspector and the hotel owner as they dash through the other door, to find Locke lying on his bed, now dead. The camera ends up looking back through the window from which it has emerged.
The ambiguities of this sequence, in particular the unreadable conversation could well have inspired Michael Haneke in the last long take of Hidden (2005). Haneke of course gives us a static long shot of the steps outside the high school on which a crowd of departing students briefly gather and where the troubled teenage son of Daniel Auteuil meets up unobtrusively with the son of Auteuil’s Algerian foster-brother, the ghost from Auteuil’s past who has shocked Auteuil (and Haneke’s audience) by slitting his throat with a razor. We cannot ‘know’ their conversation anymore than we can read the altercation in The Passenger and amidst the crowd many cinema spectators did not in fact see them appear, or notice them until they are halfway through their conversation. In the earlier film, on the face of it, the Girl seems annoyed at what the thug says to her. Is he asking about Locke? Has he propositioned her? Is he trying to draw here away from the scene of the crime? Or do they know each other already? Is he trying to mollify her, since both of them now know Locke’s fate? In both films the audience must provide their own answer since both endings are truly poised, truly balanced, wide open.
The ambiguous encounter of the Girl and the assassin is balanced by her subsequent talk with the old man outside the bullring, where she seems to be asking if anyone from the Citroën had gone into the hotel. The latter suggests genuine concern, since she knows as well as Locke that his assignation at the hotel is dangerous. Yet she has earlier looked up long and hard at Locke’s room just prior to the arrival of the Citroën. Could it be a sign? A tip-off to the assassins waiting further away in their car? We cannot tell. In the earlier abduction sequence where the two assassins had triggered the kidnap of the rebel politician in the courtyard of a Barcelona hotel we see a similar exchange of looks. The white agent looks at their target through a fountain across the courtyard then glances sharply back at his accomplice who duly goes outside to bring in his black heavies arriving by car in the street. Their target is dragged off in full public view (though the camera’s view is partly blocked by the fountain) with the white agent nowhere in sight.
The two long takes in Hidden and The Passenger offer a fascinating contrast in style. Yet both play on repetition. Haneke’s camera remains static and offers that sense of distant observation present in the earlier frontal shot of the mystery video camera trained on Auteuil’s townhouse, its tape mysteriously delivered – as in Lost Highway – at the front door. Antonioni’s moving window-shot does the opposite: it makes virtuoso use of the out-of-frame image and noises off. Here too there is a repeat of a previous mise-en-scène: the visual disorienting in the Chad desert. Antonioni’s shot places the viewer one step behind the action while freeing up the motion of the camera to hover and fly like an out-of-body spirit, a transmigrating soul. Yet, like the reporter in the desert, the camera also misses out: it is ever so slightly off the pace. The brief time-lapse is telling, and in the end fatal. We cannot report on what we have not truly heard or seen. We can only speculate. In The Silence the camera is dark and forbidding and yet in the end we see everything: in The Passenger it is bright and translucent and yet we see nothing.
John Orr is Emeritus Professor in Social and Political Studies at the University of Edinburgh where he teaches film and modern culture.
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