Antonioni’s “The Passenger” Sets Jack Nicholson’s Star Alight

On the face of it Michelangelo Antonioni’s preoccupation with identity and human observation is very simple, yet through Jack Nicholson and Maria Schneider he is able to craft a film of arresting impact.

Great actors develop bad habits when they become famous. It is a fact universally acknowledged by the actors themselves and those brave enough to point those things out. Calculated reactions, fall back expressions and go-to theatrics which are failsafe and remain unchallenged. Jack Nicholson, now in his eighties with a body of great work behind him, could be accused of just such a conceit.

From Terms of Endearment onward you might argue Nicholson has been doing “Jack” for quite some time, with exceptions which include but are not limited to About Schmidt and As Good As It Gets. What Michelangelo Antonioni’s film The Passenger does is catch Nicholson before his work drifted into that default phase. Falling around the same time as Five Easy Pieces and Carnal Knowledge, The Passenger shows us a Nicholson in full possession of that brass ring moment.

 

Working with an acknowledged maestro of Italian new wave cinema in an industry reinventing itself, Antonioni used environment, flashback, dead end dialogue exchange and silence to convey meaning. Music is employed sparingly and never to illicit an emotional response, emphasise dramatic elements or for background filler. Character motivations are virtually invisible as he asks his audience to find their own clarity. Time period, cinematic structure and geographical location are constantly changing, while only minor clues exist to help out the viewer.

On the face of it Antonioni’s preoccupation with identity and human observation is very simple, yet through Nicholson and Maria Schneider he is able to craft a film of arresting impact. His pacing maybe pedestrian and the scenes seemingly mundane, but this is a film which excels in non-verbal communication. Only that which must be said is spoken and often left incomplete much like life, which is ultimately the point. Both Nicholson and Schneider give nuanced performances against an aggressively invasive landscape, which encompasses Barcelona, London and Munich before finishing in Algiers. Not only does this contain one of the great performances from Jack Nicholson, but perhaps more importantly it comes with a commentary track from the man himself.

 

Notoriously wary of interviews and interviewers, Nicholson’s life is defined by the womaniser of old. However, what comes through more than anything here is his love of the work. Anecdotes, cinematic tangents and words of wisdom inform, enlighten and respect his audience. He never talks over things of importance and is careful to enrich rather than diminish key moments. Antonioni’s film may well be considered masterful, but played alongside the Nicholson commentary it becomes something else entirely. “Jack” the jumper is banished and in his place we have an erudite, accomplished and knowledgeable actor openly sharing his admiration for a friend and process he clearly misses dearly.