Don’t Look Now: A Film Beyond Measure

Blogpost, British cinema, Film reviews, Uncategorized

I was recently invited to write an essay on “Don’t Look Now” for a catalog to accompany a recent exhibition of work by Martin Erik Andersen at Holstebro Art Museum in Denmark.

Always one to be persuaded by flattery, I naturally accepted, and subsequently spent a fair amount of time conducting research, watching and thinking about the film, and then writing this essay.

Alas, however, the below essay was not what they said that they were looking for – in that does not provide a ‘mathematical’ analysis of the film. Rather than waste the c30 hours of work that went into this, though, I figured I would post it here.

Don’t Look Now: A Film Beyond Measure


“Don’t Look Now” seems to have it in for wizened old dwarf women, since the one who features in Nicolas Roeg’s film turns out to be a murderer who ultimately slays John Baxter, played by Donald Sutherland, and who is the central protagonist of the movie.

We have to start with a spoiler, though, because it is only by getting to the end of the film that we can begin in certain respects to make sense of it. For, as we shall see, “Don’t Look Now” offers up a conception of space and time that suggests that in many respects we are always already dead – and that it is simply an anthropocentric conceit to organise, or indeed to contain, space and time into measurable units, or indeed to measure space and time at all.

I should refine my last sentence and say that it is not simply an anthropocentric conceit to measure space and time (to divide space and time into measurements). Rather, it is quite specifically a tendency or a trope of what we might term capitalist man to do this (with the gender implications of the term ‘man’ being allowed to remain, with whiteness and western-ness also being qualities that remain consistent with such hegemonic practices, or practices of domination). In short, capitalist white man (who could almost certainly be specified via further adjectives) seeks to dominate nature by subjugating nature to measurement. By making our world finite and ordered. To bring order to chaos.

Why does man seek to do this? Because he wishes to halt time, not to die, to live forever, and to escape from the perceived cruelty of nature, which cruelty amounts basically to taking it as an insult that he does not live forever in the first place. That is, man seeks to do this out of narcissism. To prove that he is above the animals and ‘better’ than nature.

But what does this have to do with “Don’t Look Now”?

It has everything to do with “Don’t Look Now”, because (capitalist western white) man’s wrangles with the chaotic universe become the very fabric of Roeg’s movie, both as a documentary and as a self-consciously composed (fiction) film

What on earth do I mean when I describe the film as a documentary?

Well, what in particular I mean is that humans don’t have to go very far with a camera in order to find signs of humanity’s attempts to dominate nature/the world/chaos via what I am terming measurement. As it turns out, Venice is an excellent venue for this because it is a space where the straight lines and measurements that humanity imposes on the world (including the delimitation and naming of space that is calling this particular place ‘Venice’) come in direct contact with—and are reflected in—the chaotic waters on top of which that city is built (and into which it is slowly sinking, about which, more imminently).

But even if Venice provides an excellent visualisation of how a certain kind of humanity (patriarchal white society, with the Christianity business at its core) tries specifically to build itself upon water in order to subjugate that water, you could basically point a camera anywhere these days and what you would film would include the straight lines and geometric patterns applied to and/or covering over nature by humans, as well as signs of that nature itself in the form of tendrils, vines, blades of grass, trees, rain, clouds, and anything else that is not manmade. In this sense, pretty much all films document the ways in which humans try to, but in many ways cannot, pave over nature and create a measured and measurable world of order, and of which we can make easy sense. We simplify nature, making order of chaos, and in so doing we mark our separation from chaos, giving to ourselves a sense of our own specialness within the universe.

Except, of course, that this endeavour is all vanity—and Venice will indeed sink into the quagmire as churches will fall into disrepair, humans will die, and so on. At least, this will happen until humans do discover the elixir of eternal life (and preferably eternal youth rather than ageing forever but not dying). That is, humans will do this until they do finally become gods—a pursuit that even today many believe possible thanks to the powers of ‘science,’ i.e. thanks to the powers of measurement itself. We seek the bottles or other containers that will bring about eternal life, be those augmented bodies, computer avatars, elixirs that we can drink, space ships to take us to the stars and many more ideas, as often faddish as foolish.

Cinema and photography, as technologies that can in some senses preserve human life, including beyond what we typically refer to as death, are part and parcel of this endeavour. And yet, cinema can also, like many humans, be at war with this embalming impulse and it can also open itself up to and find regeneration in chaos. Rather than being a tool for eternal life, cinema can also let chaos and death into its system.

And so if “Don’t Look Now” documents man’s vanity as he attempts to cheat death (just look at Venice; such vanity is the very architecture of the place), it also consciously explores this contradiction, and thus it emerges as a work of art that actively works with chaos rather than trying to pour concrete over it.

Indeed, the opening shots announce as much: rain and the shuddering water of a pond—accompanied by a zoom that creates a pattern of almost televisual static. We dissolve to patterns of light on a black background, as light filters through cracks in a blind. The blind may keep out the light, but as the film will tell us, the blind can also see, and in seeing, show us aspects of our world that we otherwise miss.

After these opening seconds, we will repeatedly have flowers, vines and tendrils creeping into the frame. Indeed, in cutaway after cutaway, Roeg deliberately speaks the iconographic language of the still life, where the straight lines of the human world are juxtaposed with the sinewy mess of nature. Furthermore, pigeons will repeatedly emerge into frame to disrupt the geometry of the city, while cats meow from behind metal grates (which is not to mention dogs barking and children crying offscreen throughout the film).

Even when we do find ourselves in relatively geometric spaces, the human itself emerges as a force of chaos rather than one of control. We can picture John and Laura, framed by drawing tubes and hotel room furniture, and yet they themselves both have curly, barely controlled hair, spiralling out of their heads (and out of John’s lip)—a sort of cinematic Kandinsky consisting of monochromatic straight lines coming up against inconsistent spheres.

John is at the centre of this tension between order and chaos. If the blind seer Heather can tell that John also has visions, John tries as best he can to deny them. Even as he knows that he is restoring a fake church, something that he admits to Laura over dinner, he still is invested in the project of halting time and bringing about the restoration and eternal youth of this floating city.

Indeed, the tension that John feels is clearly reflected in his consideration of space. For, John has written a book called Beyond the Fragile Geometry of Space, which we see next to Laura on the sofa of their English home at the film’s start. We are not given access to the book’s contents, but from its title we might surmise that John can indeed see beyond space as geometric, that is, beyond space as being made of fixed and measured/measurable coordinates.

Let us dwell a while on this idea. For, the Greek term for measurement is metron, which for Reza Negarestani is

found etymologically encrypted in English words such as Dimension (from dimetiri: measure out), meter, etc. Keeping well in mind the famous doctrine of Pythagoras, ‘Man is the metron of everything’ (pantōn chrēmatōn metron anthrōpos), metron can be translated as scale, measure, standard, and value. According to Sextus Empiricus, metron expresses criterion (scale, measure) but Heraclitus and Sophocles saw it as certifying dominance, a domination over something. Therefore, metron indicates that both measures and dimensions inter-connect with power, judgement and reasoning. The critique of metron explains how dimensions (namely metron) bring power into effect, mobilizing and propagating it. (Negarestani 2008: 233)

In other words, metron is humanity’s attempt to control an otherwise dimension-defying reality and to become a god by measuring it out, by applying to it a fixed number of dimensions, and thus by dominating/subjugating/simplifying it. No wonder it is that we see a bust of Socrates’ note-taker, Plato, as John inspects a slide also at the film’s start. For, via his engagement with ancient Greek thought, John understands that measurement is nothing more than man’s attempt to control nature, and that it must therefore be fragile. What, however, lies ‘beyond’ this fragile geometry of space…?

Beyond the fragile dimensions that humans construct via walls, pavements and other straight, hard surfaces, which all eventually will crumble into the sea, man is lost—as John and Laura experience even within Venice as they wander its alleyways at night. Without illumination and thus without the visible markers or measures of space that man has created in order to navigate it, space is simply a labyrinth, and space simply swallows up man and demonstrates that his meaning and order, his straight lines and his religious myths, are mere consolations against the impermanence and complexity of the world. Even a frozen lake is not flat/straight, as Laura explains. And so the human world tries to be permanent and thus is carved in solid materials like stone, but even these become covered by moss and broken down, and even these give way to mud and water, which in turn drown humans and bring them back to the ever-shifting earth.

If “Don’t Look Now” pits an ordered solidity against chaotic liquid, then clearly humans contain within them the tension between these two states. For, humans are of course themselves mostly liquid, as is made most clear when blood flows forth from humans in injury and death—and monthly in the female human for as long as she might biologically generate new life. Humans thus create bottles for liquids in order to contain their chaotic power, much as humans bottle themselves up in order to keep the same chaos at bay (unsurprisingly, then, John is aghast when he vomits, which he claims not to have done in 10 years, since he prides himself on keeping everything inside).

And yet, if humans create and become bottles, glass nonetheless smashes on several occasions in the film: Laura and John’s son, Johnny, cycles over glass just before Christine drowns in the pond, while glass smashes as Laura faints in the restaurant, and John is covered in broken glass as he nearly falls from inspecting the mural in the Church of St Niccolò dei Mendicoli. Meanwhile, blood spills from John and Johnny at the moment of Christine’s death—and the water beneath Venice is always there to remind us that chaos can only be bottled briefly, if at all.

But still (western) humans persist in shutting themselves off from the outside and in seeking eternal, bottled and contained life. Indeed, “Don’t Look Now” anticipates, or at the very least positions itself as being part of a cultural logic of computation when little Johnny’s headmaster at Porton School is revealed as being called Babbage. Clearly an allusion to Charles Babbage, the progenitor of digital culture, his role as an educator clearly suggests that the logic of mankind as exempt from nature (with digital technology having since the film become the talismanic technology that will make this aspiration come true) is one that is inculcated in western humans from an early age, such that they go on to internalise this logic of separation-from-reality, and assume it to be real.

What is more, humans resist the outside world not just by building walls (even as doors fly open by themselves/at the power of the wind), but also by covering themselves with clothes—with “Don’t Look Now”being especially a treatise on gloves. It is as if humans want to avoid direct contact with as much of the world as possible, including with each other. In addition, humans cross their legs (John) in order not to let out the yonic energies that emanate from their genitals, and humans try to maintain sure and still postures. (Notably, Laura is told to uncross her legs when Heather tries to get in touch with Christine from beyond the grave.)

The awkwardness of Donald Sutherland running towards the pond where Christine drowns is one of the most important images in “Don’t Look Now”, since it conveys the imperfection of human movement—while at the same time working within the film to suggest that humans try otherwise to move as little as possible, to turn themselves into perfect statues and thus to live forever (in photographs?). This stillness involves a suppression of desire that is at odds with the openness to other dimensions that Heather experiences, shuddering and juddering as she communes orgasmically with the beyond… and which orgasmic shudder has clear echoes with the film’s ‘controversial’ (or at least for many people memorable) sex scene, in which John and Heather remain (alas, all too tastefully?) nude for what seems like a prolonged period.

To shudder and to quake is to be in touch with the infinite and to generate new life, much as the mud and the water generate new life and the continued evolution and change of life on earth. John Izod sees the brooch worn by Heather’s sister Wendy as a symbol of fertility (Izod 1992: 108), and in some senses he is not wrong; but when we get a close up view of it as Laura inspects the brooch while visiting the sisters in their hotel room, we see more clearly that it depicts a mermaid—as if these women were indeed from a chaotic water element, and thus also outside of the geometric world of masculinist stone.

In identifying the film as western, as well as by quoting an Islamic scholar in relation to measurement above, we perhaps have wandered far from the film’s intended/suitable critical framework. And yet, the film also contains seeds of such a ‘dewesternising’ critique. ‘The deeper we get, the more Byzantine it gets,’ says John to Laura just before he confesses to restoring not a real church but a fake. Not only is the western world in some senses fake as a whole because of its fundamental and wilfully illusory separation from nature/reality, but it also is one built upon a history of theft and a subsequent denial of that theft (with western man seeking no depth whatsoever, since to enter the murky depths, to enter murkiness as depth, is indeed the remit of the Byzantine/other; no wonder western man tries to surround himself with mirrors, which surfaces “Don’t Look Now” also consults repeatedly).

At one point, John comes face to face with a grotesque bust on the side of the church that he is restoring. Not only does this suggest that John himself is grotesque, but it also brings to mind the way in which the grotesque is itself a marginal form that is perhaps marginal precisely because it regularly blurs the boundary between the human and other species/the rest of the world, with grotesques (and its explicitly non-western cousin, the arabesque) regularly seeing the figure merge with the textual in the form of a flourishing vine. In other words, the grotesque reminds us not of the separation of man from world, but precisely of the interconnection between man, animal, plant and the rest of the material world (see also Marks 2010: 96-98). In the Islamic pictorial tradition, the grotesque and the arabesque both also bring to mind the autonomous life of the line; that is, as the line is freed from the burden of representation but instead becomes its own expressive force (flowing as it wishes and not because it must outline, say, a face), so does it move beyond the realm of the visual (this is a picture of a face) and into the realm of the haptic (you can feel the force of the line). It is not through vision that we can understand the world, but through touch, even as western humans put on gloves to avoid it.

But as the line comes alive in the grotesque and the arabesque, so might we also understand how colour, in particular through a Venetian history of art, also connotes hapticity. Laura U Marks can help to illuminate once again why Venice is such an apt venue for “Don’t Look Now”:

of course line and color are interdependent, as in the labile quality of the contour and the mercurial technique of chiaroscuro. It is notable that the Venetians, and their coloristic heir in the nineteenth century, Delacroix, were influenced by Oriental contact. Haptic space began to push to the surface of their paintings, while the linearists were still keeping the abstract line in check… Artisans began to emphasize flow over form. The tendril decoration inherited from Greek and Roman art quickly lost its naturalism and became what we call the arabesque. (Marks 2010: 54)

And so with its emphasis on red, “Don’t Look Now” similarly enacts an attempt to divorce colour from form, to give to colour a life of its own, as is made especially clear by the blood that floods the image during the climax of the opening death sequence. This haptic aspect of the film thus helps viewers to get beyond simply what is represented (here is a person in a red coat) and to access other dimensions hidden within these normal/normative ways of seeing (but of course the bearer of the red coat turns out to be a grotesque, old, murderous woman, since the grotesque, the old and the female are all antithetical to the myth of eternal youth that patriarchy seeks, promises, and narcissistically fools itself into believing it can realise; the woman does not bottle up life, keeping it for herself, but instead she bleeds and gives life).

If “Don’t Look Now” in some senses consciously places itself within artistic, pictorial and/or painterly traditions, then it is also knowingly a film. If for Mary Shelley the Promethean endeavour to establish eternal life led to the creation of Frankenstein’s monster, then Christine’s death clearly evokes the moment in James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) when the monster throws a little girl, Maria, into a pond, causing her also to drown. Indeed, perhaps this allusion makes clear how John himself is a creating a monster in trying to resurrect a fake. Or rather, in trying to be Prometheus, John already is Frankenstein’s monster himself.

Meanwhile, “Don’t Look Now” of course follows hot on the heels of Luchino Visconti’s Thomas Mann adaptation, Death in Venice (1971), which itself tells the tale of how human desire cannot be kept straight, and how man will indeed only ever fail in his attempts to prolong his life. Finally, the moment when a dead body is fished from the water recalls a similar moment in Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Eclisse (1962), in which a car is similarly fished out from the Tiber—as if that tale of human alienation were in some senses continued here. A poster of Charlie Chaplin further clarifies the film’s lineage: the tramp equally is alienated from the machinic world of capital.

But much as “Don’t Look Now” revels in its status as a film, it is and must also be in rebellion against that very same status. For if cinema is anything, it is perhaps, as mentioned, a technology for preserving human life beyond death. In this way, it is part of the Promethean project, while the very and inevitable existence of the frame means that cinema only ever ‘bottles’ or ‘boxes’ space, offering us the Euclidean coordinates of a framed reality. Cinema is like Venice in that if the latter is, as Heather suggests, a ‘city in aspic,’ then cinema likewise puts the human body in aspic, preserving us in polyester.

If this is so, then it is against the frame of cinema itself that Roeg will consistently reframe, zoom and blur the images that we see. As with the performances, in which lines are mumbled, and the sound recording, in which sometimes the dialogue is hard to follow, Roeg thus deliberately makes a technically ‘dirty’ film, reminding us regularly that we are watching a film, a fake, a story that is not necessarily to be believed. Indeed, the use of quotation marks in the very title of the film (“Don’t Look Now”) suggest a second-hand rather than an original story.* And it is a story that at times we literally cannot see very clearly; one that on occasion leaves us baffled as to what exactly is happening.

What is more, Roeg’s radical editing, in which we can jump from different times to different spaces and back again within what we would traditionally refer to as a ‘scene’ ties in with the film’s use of cinema not to affix time but to demonstrate its interconnected nature. That is, as the dimensions of space are attributes that we affix to ‘raw’ space so as to conquer it (and so as not to get lost), so do we do the same with time.

Clocks and watches abound within “Don’t Look Now”, with these technologies themselves being ways for humans to regulate and thus in some senses to control time. And yet time itself is not linear, as the love-making scene itself exemplifies; we jump back and forth between John and Laura engaging in coitus and the two of them getting dressed/covering themselves back up for dinner. What was formless and naked becomes formal once again—but the edit mixes the chronology up suggesting that the past, the present and the future all co-exist simultaneously. This is why John can see his own funeral, why Heather can foresee the future and why John is in some respects (always) already dead: as space is deeply, or fundamentally, dimensionless, so, too, is time.

(To “look now” is thus perhaps not to see; one cannot look now, or at least the film encourages not only to look at the now, but to see how the now/the present is intertwined with the past and the future. If we truly could see the “now” we would not see it isolated from other moments in time, but entangled with them.**)

If it is the destiny of all humans to fall, as John imagines at one point that he does in the church amidst a shower of broken glass, then gravity will bring all humans to the grave. And in that muddly hole, worms will devour us and vines will emerge from that mud in a new sprouting of life. In the mud, space is dimensionless, but, so, too, is time, with Roeg’s cinema travelling through edit ‘wormholes’ to connect up what would be different spaces and times as if they were all connected. Not extended geometrically into a manageable pattern—but all together all at once. The vanity of man is to live forever; the reality of the universe is that we do live forever, but we also die forever, too. The vain and Promethean endeavour of man is to separate life definitively from death; the destiny of the human is to realise that life is inseparable from death—even as this leads to life defying gravity and emerging from the grave. It is at La Fenice where the sisters are staying by the film’s end; they are thus like phoenixes, transcending the distinction between life and death via their embrace of immanence and rebirth, as John canters (awkwardly again) towards his own death in Venice (Fenice?) because he will not accept a world without measure.

When the corpse, which bears a remarkable similarity to Heather, is retrieved from the Venetian canal, we see the open-eyed actor playing that part suddenly blink. No doubt an ‘error,’ the moment nonetheless demonstrates that the world of life without death is a world of impossible unblinkingness, one of permanent light in which paradoxically we cannot see. It is only when we blink, or when, like Wendy, we have something in our eyes (including mud, which perhaps explains why John begins to drink—here’s mud in your eye!) that we actually do see. True reality is marked by invisible dimensions that perhaps we can feel through senses other than vision; to be limited only to unblinking vision is to close oneself off to those alternative dimensions, spaces and times that we might dismiss as fantasies, dreams or hallucinations, but which in fact are real.

But what is it that we actually are not seeing? Perhaps of particular note is that “Don’t Look Now” features a second book in addition to Beyond the Fragile Geometry of Space, and that is Rolf Hochhuth’s stage play, Der Stellvertreter (1963), which regularly is translated as The Deputy. Der Stellvertreter explores the way in which Pope Pius XII failed to speak out or take action against the Holocaust. What remains invisible, then, is the way in which National Socialism and the Catholic church both—in their attempts to control the world—lead to genocide, both within Europe and further afield. This blood, more than the Venetian lagoon, is the true chaotic liquid that has been spilt for the purposes of creating the western and patriarchal world of walls. And it is a blood that cannot be shown, but only alluded to, much as a black hole cannot directly be seen, but which can only be felt as a result of its gravitational and grave effects (everything falls towards it).

It is quite typical of 1970s art house movies to offer up many different signs, and yet which on the whole remain hard to decipher. “Don’t Look Now” is no exception, and there remain numerous details that I have not been able to mention, including the role of the police (‘The skill of the police artist is to make the living appear dead’); the way in which the camera always lingers on Signor Alexander, the owner of the hotel at which the Baxters are staying, after the other characters have finished talking to him; the way in which Laura is referred to as Mrs Baster at the airport, as if the family might be bastards; a poster about Boris Godunov; the prominence of a pair of neon glasses and a sign for an ottica, or optician’s, as John and Laura emerge from the darkness and back into familiar and lit alleyways in the Venetian night.

But of course if “Don’t Look Now” made total, coherent sense, then it would too much have subjugated its details to meaning; it would too much have made order out of chaos. In part, “Don’t Look Now” must remain chaotic on purpose, full of details that elude interpretation, and thus coming alive like the line and colour of the arabesque and/or the grotesque. In this way, it suggests an infinity beyond the finite world of walls and stone. An invisible world of blood unleashed. But also a world of life beyond death, of life in death, of dimensions beyond the measure of western capitalist man. Maybe the measure of a man, and the measure of this film, is that it seeks to go beyond measure, and to put is in touch with that infinite. Such an infinite reality can never be spoiled—except by the greed of men who seek to live forever.

* I overheard British Film Institute librarian Sarah Currant making this point during an induction session for students in the BFI Library. My thanks to her and my apologies for purloining the observation.

** This point was suggested to me by Mila Zuo. My thanks also to her for her help with this.


Izod, John (1992) The Films of Nicolas Roeg: Myth and Mind, New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Marks, Laura U. (2010) Enfoldment and Infinity: An Islamic Genealogy of New Media Art, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Negarestani, Reza (2008) Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials, Melbourne:

Philosophical Screens: Professione: Reporter/The Passenger (Michelangelo Antonioni, Italy/Spain/France, 1975)

Blogpost, European cinema, Film education, Film reviews, French Cinema, Italian Cinema, Philosophical Screens, Spanish film, Uncategorized

This is a written version of sorts of the analysis that I gave on 17 January 2019 after a screening of The Passenger, a film featuring as part of the British Film Institute‘s Michelangelo Antonioni season, and which analysis was part of their ongoing Philosophical Screens series.

The discussion involved contributions from John Ó Maoilearca from Kingston University, and Lucy Bolton from Queen Mary, University of London, as well as from many audience members.

I shall try to stick only to what I said, even if this means foregoing some of the wonderful comments and ideas expressed by those other participants, including a brief if fruitful discussion of the relationship between the philosopher John Locke and the film’s lead character, David Locke (Jack Nicholson).

For, if the former represents something like a dualistic world view, then the latter comes to represent something of a progression away from that, not least as Locke leaves behind his identity as Locke and assumes the identity of David Robertson.

For, The Passenger tells the story of a journalist, Locke, who encounters Robertson (Chuck Mulvehill) at a tiny hotel in a small town in an anonymous African country, where they get drunk – in spite of the doctor’s advice for the latter not to.

After a relatively fruitless day of looking for rebels whom he can include in his documentary, and after getting his Land Rover stuck in the desert, Locke returns home to find Robertson dead – apparently from a heart attack.

Seizing his opportunity (not least because he looks a bit like Robertson and the locals will not be able to tell them apart), Locke assumes Robertson’s identity and says that it is Locke who has died.

Former colleague Knight (Ian Hendry) and estranged wife Rachel (Jenny Runacre) mourn Locke back in London, where the latter goes to pick up some stuff from his home and to check out Robertson’s world.

Indeed, before going to his Notting Hill home, Locke visits the Brunswick Centre, where he passes a girl (Maria Schneider) whom he will again encounter in Barcelona.

But Locke will not get to Barcelona before using Robertson’s ticket to head to Munich, where he discovers that Robertson was/is an arms dealer, and who was/is involved in supplying arms to the rebels in the nameless African country where the opening sequences of The Passenger took place (and which generally are thought to be based on Chad, about which more later).

As implied above, this is the first of several scheduled encounters between Robertson and the rebels, who are led by a man called Achebe (Ambroise Bia). However, after Achebe is abducted by presidential agents in Barcelona, that meeting does not take place.

Nor do the subsequent meetings that Robertson was supposed to have – at least according to the schedule in Robertson’s diary – in a (fictional) place called San Ferdinando and then at the Hotel de la Gloria in Osuna.

For, and here are some SPOILERS, after discovering that Robertson was with Locke the night before the latter supposedly died, Knight and Rachel both decide to try to track Robertson down.

As a result, when Knight nearly discovers in Barcelona that Robertson is in fact Locke, Locke has to go on the run – and where better to go than to the meetings that Robertson had scheduled, not least because they have led to him receiving a substantial sum of money from the African rebels?

What is more, Locke does this with the girl from the Brunswick Centre, who by seeming coincidence also happens to be in Barcelona when he is – supposedly looking at architecture as part of her studies.

Indeed, it is at what appears to be Antoni Gaudí’s Palau Guëll that Locke encounters the girl for the first time in Barcelona, before then catching up with her again at La Pedrera after spotting Knight on the Ramblas near his hotel.

Locke has chased the girl down to ask her to get his stuff from the hotel. This she does, and after the girl has evaded Knight, the pair travel on south towards Osuna via San Ferdinando.

Hearing that Robertson is being evasive, a curious Rachel also goes to Spain – but not after visiting the embassy of the African country in which Locke and Robertson were both working.

Knowing that Robertson is a gun runner for the rebels, the ambassador has his men follow Rachel, which ultimately results in the government forces finding Locke at the Hotel de la Gloria, where they assassinate him before Rachel can arrive with the local police.

Faced with Locke’s body, Rachel says that she does not know this man, while the girl identifies him as Robertson – and the film closes.

But beyond this synopsis of the film, what is also crucial is the film’s style, which I hope to explore in more detail in what follows – not least by picking up on numerous details that Antonioni features in his mise-en-scène.

My basic suggestion is that – however problematically – Locke has a primordial encounter in Africa, and this means that he can no longer remain who he was, in particular a dispassionate image-maker and reporter who is not directly with, but who rather observes the world. As Knight says of him in a televised discussion of Locke’s work: he had ‘a kind of detachment.’

The reason why this encounter is problematic is because it runs the risk of mythologising Africa, a mythologisation that might be as much my invention as I read it as being Antonioni’s.

That said, I hope that the evidence I present will suggest that this is at least as much Antonioni’s as it is my invention, while at the same time not necessarily being wholly unjust from a political perspective.

Twice in the film, Locke is asked whether he finds the landscape beautiful – once towards the start of the movie when Robertson asks him about the desert landscape by the small-town hotel, and once towards the end of the movie when Locke’s hire car has broken down and he looks at the desert landscape with the girl.

Notably, Locke’s answer changes in the interim between these two questions. For, the first time that he is asked, Locke shows little interest, suggesting that he prefers men to landscapes, to which Robertson replies: ‘There are men who live in the desert.’

The second time, meanwhile, the girl asks Locke whether he finds the landscape beautiful, to which Locke responds: ‘Yes, it’s very beautiful.’

In other words, Locke’s attitude towards the landscape has changed. What has happened?

Well, for one thing, anyone who has lived in, or even visited, a desert knows that sand gets everywhere (indeed, as I suggested at the BFI, Locke’s stuff is remarkably clean when it is returned to Rachel by the ambassador).

That is, the sand of the desert demonstrates that humans are incapable of controlling the space in which they live. For, try as they might to keep things like sand and dirt out, it always creeps in.

Now, architecture plays a prominent part in The Passenger, as the prominence of spaces like the Brunswick Centre and the Gaudí buildings makes clear.

Architecture is thus in some senses an attempt by humans to control space – to create a space that is free from the ravages of the desert, and of nature more generally.

Certainly, the London architecture of the Brunswick Centre would suggest this… while in Africa and in Spain, The Passenger is full of what I would call ‘porous’ architecture.

I call it porous architecture because repeatedly we see open windows and doors, and/or we see through open windows and doors, which themselves suggest not a shutting off of the outside, but a continuity between inside and outside (or, thinking of the reference to the philosopher Locke above, not a duality but a singularity of space).

Furthermore, in Africa in particular we see people wander into and out of frame from strange angles – appearing where we thought there might previously be nothing, as if the frame of the film is itself porous, and open to unexpected intrusions. Such unexpected intrusions might be called chaos.

And chaos can interrupt anywhere: for example, a pink rose extends largely into frame as Locke stands outside his own London home – as if nature cannot help but extend into the supposedly controlled world of men.

Furthermore, when Locke discover Robertson’s body, the fans in the room causes his hair to move, just as the towels that hang from pegs on the wall also twitch under the power of the breeze.

This is a universe of constant movement – one that is beyond our control as even humans move about after death.

And yet, men try to control the world – as can be seen by the inclusion in one shot of a speed limit sign in the desert. What is the point of a speed limit sign in a place where there are no roads? The asphalt may not have been laid down yet, but in order to stop the desert constantly from shifting shape and eluding control, the speed limit sign suggests that it will be coming.

It seems that Locke has, or at one point certainly had, a propensity for chaos, or for breaking down barriers and losing control, as is suggested during a flashback when we see him burning tree branches in his Notting Hill garden, an action that prompts Rachel to call him crazy – a moment to which I shall also return.

But somewhere along the line, Locke also lost this propensity for chaos – with Rachel subsequently suggesting to Knight that ‘David really wasn’t so different’ to other people, and that ‘he accepted too much’ – in particular referring to an interview with the African president, in which Locke did not challenge him about his policies, especially his treatment of the rebels.

Indeed, while an adventurer of sorts Locke seems to have become a human who has bought into the world of control – and yet who may still come back to accepting and understanding the world of chaos.

(This transition from control to chaos is the Jack Nicholson persona par excellence, from Easy Rider, Dennis Hopper, USA, 1969, to Five Easy Pieces, Bob Rafelson, USA, 1970, to Chinatown, Roman Polanski, USA, 1974, to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Milos Forman, USA, 1975, to The Shining, Stanley Kubrick, UK/USA, 1980, to Batman, Tim Burton, USA/UK, 1989, to A Few Good Men, Rob Reiner, USA, 1992, to As Good as It Gets, James L Brooks, USA, 1997, to About Schmidt, Alexander Payne, USA, 2002.)

As the Land Rover gets stuck in the desert, Locke starts to whack it with a shovel, breaking down in tears as he can no longer cross space in the way that he wants to.

In other words, he has lost control – and this infuriates him. Locke cannot cope with entropy; he cannot, if you will, cope with the idea of his own death. To quote another famous Achebe, he hates it when and cannot stand the fact that things fall apart.

And yet, Locke changes, or at the very least reconnects with his propensity for chaos, and after finding Robertson he decides to embrace chaos and to become someone else.

For, even to have a name (David Locke) is in some senses to seek to control one’s identity, and/or to be controlled. By becoming someone else, Locke enters into a world of becoming rather than a world of being, a world that goes with the flow, allows things to fall apart, is okay with entropy, allows in a little death (perhaps this is even an orgasmic existence, as petite mort, or little death, comes to mean orgasm in French).

But it is not just finding Robertson’s body that produces this change.

There are two sequences interpolated into The Passenger that bear discussion. The first is an interview that Locke shot with a man referred to typically as the Witch Doctor (played by an uncredited James Campbell).

Since the Witch Doctor has been educated in France and Yugoslavia, Locke is surprised that he has not abandoned his superstitious beliefs and instead adopted a more ‘western’ or ‘rational’ perspective on the world: ‘Has that changed your attitude toward certain tribal customs? Don’t they strike you as false now and wrong, perhaps, for the tribe?’

The response: ‘Mr. Locke, there are perfectly satisfactory answers to all your questions. But I don’t think you understand how little you can learn from them. Your questions are much more revealing about yourself than my answer would be about me.’

That is, Locke here demonstrates that he projects on to the world a western perspective that is closed-minded, much as westerns try to close the outside world off from their architecture, and much as many filmmakers try to close their frame off from any unexpected intrusions.

Notably, though, the Witch Doctor soon takes the camera from Locke and starts to film him.

In other words, there is a transition from Locke as ‘detached’ (as per Knight’s reckoning) to Locke as implicated – not someone beyond the frame, but someone as part of the frame.

What is more, at a later point in time we see footage, supposedly real, of a man being shot by a firing squad.

Knight, who is looking at this footage, responds in a blasé fashion – as if he had seen such images a hundred times before, while Rachel is appalled.

This suggests – perhaps again problematically – that a ‘female’ perspective is more implicated than a ‘male’ perspective, even if the latter is the one that is associated with image production and power, as per Knight’s job as a television producer.

But more than this, one can imagine that Locke, who recorded this footage, was himself so shocked by it that it ended his ability to be detached.

For, in presenting to us footage that supposedly is real – rather than being staged for the film – Antonioni provides us with an encounter with something real, much as Locke, too, encountered real death.

There are a couple of issues to pick apart here. For, we are still seeing a recording of death and not death itself when we watch The Passenger, and within the fiction of The Passenger, we are led to assume that Locke still recorded this moment in addition simply to observing it.

To say that the moment involves an encounter with what psychoanalysts might refer to as the Real, then, is problematic; the real life taken here is still reduced to an image.

And yet the documentary nature of this footage does in some senses mean that the fiction of The Passenger comes face-to-face with reality.

But is this not still then to render aesthetic something that is supposed to elude the aesthetic and to be instead real – a real encounter that leads Locke to give up on a life of detachment and to embrace chaos, such that ultimately he embraces death?

So the question now becomes: can film picture the real, or will it always only render or reduce the real to an image?

Perhaps film cannot, but the documentary image at least points to the real – to a beyond the frame that is in accord with Antonioni’s desire for his frame also to be ‘open’ to outside encounters via his filmmaking style as discussed above and as I shall explore in more detail below.

In this way, we might charge Antonioni with being unethical by interpolating into The Passenger a seeming snuff movie the provenance of which remains unknown, its participants anonymous?

For, by not telling us where this sequence comes from, Antonioni runs the risk of simply saying something problematic like ‘violence like this happens in Africa’ – a generalised Africa that is essentially violent and not riddled with violence as a result of specific histories and concrete circumstances?

And yet one might also contend that Antonioni, knowing that this footage exists, cannot not show it, since that might be more ‘unethical’ yet (to know that such things happen and not to acknowledge as much).

More than this, to ‘reduce’ issues such as African contemporaneity (corruption, postcolonialism, violence) to specific concrete histories would potentially be to make them manageable. Indeed, they might as a result lose their power as the Real – because like Locke himself, it would give an anthropocentric identity to a reality that has no name and is entirely chaotic.

And even if Antonioni cannot name or explain the footage, since it is, like reality itself, inexplicable (to explain it would be to conquer it, to control the uncontrollable), there are nonetheless hints as to the political reality to which Antonioni alludes.

For, we see that Robertson is reading, for example, a book about or by Patrice Lumumba, the Congolese independence leader, while the film was shot in a Chad undergoing political turmoil in the mid-1970s as well.

What is more, the film takes us beyond Africa when we read in Robertson’s diary that he has a meeting with ‘Daisy’ (presumed by Locke to be a codename for Achebe or other rebels/guerrillas) at the Hotel de la Gloria in Osuna on 11 September 1973.

This is of course the date on which General Augusto Pinochet bombed La Moneda, the presidential palace in Santiago, in the process killing president Salvador Allende.

In other words, The Passenger potentially links to not just an African but to a global repression of independence movements that are not in thrall to the colonial powers from which they were trying to liberate themselves.

Indeed, Locke/Robertson dies on this day, with The Passenger thus potentially suggesting on the one level a pessimism with regard to liberation movements, while at the same time Locke learns to embrace chaos and to let himself die.

Is there any other way out of this labyrinth? Or are humans condemned to fail in their bid to work with rather than against chaos, in that this always leads to death – perhaps especially at the hands of those who seek only to control?

Perhaps this is Locke’s tragedy. He can escape Locke; but he is still restrained by/as Robertson. Or, as Locke himself puts it, ‘it stays so difficult to get away from your own habits.’ And: ‘I’ve run out of everything. My wife. The house. An adopted child. A successful job. Everything except a few bad habits I couldn’t get rid of.’

Those habits might include the need for an identity, even if not ‘his own.’ This is his tragedy, perhaps the tragedy of western man… but perhaps western man must understand that a future is coming in which he does not play the starring role – even if Antonioni cannot make that film since that is not who he is. He, also, is the dying western man and not the (post)human of the future.

Perhaps the best that such a man can hope for is an angel who turns up in the form of Maria Schneider (who may well be Daisy?), who will guide him towards death.

Or perhaps the best that humanity can hope for is that they will be replaced by a new intelligence, one that may indeed be a human who is a bit more like cinema.

This is a curious assertion, so let me work it through. By this, I do not mean cinema as it most commonly manifests itself, with its strict demarcations between characters and actions, but a cinema that is itself far more like, or in tune with, or even a manifestation of the chaotic flow of the universe.

Instead, this is a cinema that refuses to recognise boundaries and which does not necessarily prioritise human action over anything else, instead locating the human as simply another part of space and time.

In Barcelona, we see Locke walk past a cinema called Cine Eden as he flees from Knight. Cinema might indeed present to us a new Eden. And we can see how this is so in Antonioni’s film in various ways.

Gaudí’s curving, chaotic and African-inspired architecture seems to announce Locke’s transition, a shift away from the rigid and into the flow, much as the journey south that is the film’s road trip also signals a motion towards a different reality beyond the hard lines of the global north.

The camera drifts away from Locke and focuses on a fan. It wanders up some electric wires and looks at some insects. Some cars drive past Locke and the girl, and the camera pans right, then left, and then right again – dancing with the passing cars rather than focusing on the film’s protagonists.

Famously, the camera pans around Locke’s hotel room and suddenly we see Robertson alive again, talking to Locke at an earlier point in time, even though there has not been a cut.

So not only do we see insects, cars and other machines take on a life of their own, as even the hair on a dead body can dance in Antonioni’s film, but time itself dances around, with the past co-existing alongside the present, and perhaps with an imagined future if in fact Locke is the one who died, but it takes him until 11 September 1973 and with the help of angel to realise as much.

Maria Schneider may (problematically) herself come also to signify such a cinema. She can turn up in Barcelona having been in London – as if by magic. She can anticipate Locke’s arrival at the Hotel de la Gloria by signing in ahead of him as Mrs Robertson. She can be a Daisy, a flow-er that many disregard as a weed, a force for chaotic revolution, as Věra Chytilová knew.

Indeed, as is made clear in Torremolinos 73 (Pablo Berger, Spain/Denmark, 2003), Spaniards would flee the repressive, controlling regime of Francisco Franco and head to France in order to see Schneider in Ultimo tango a Parigi/Last Tango in Paris (Bernardo Bertolucci, France/Spain, 1972), surely a problematic film, but one that nonetheless signalled a desire to flow with cinematic desire rather than repress it.

As mentioned, Rachel calls Locke crazy for starting a fire in his Notting Hill garden. What is also worth pointing out here is that this is not Locke’s memory, as per the earlier sequence shots that see involving Robertson, but Rachel’s memory.

That is, the film has transitioned without signalling it from Locke’s memory to Rachel’s, out of his brain/mind and into hers as if cinema knew no identity, no boundaries, but is only a force for chaotic flow and becoming.

And then of course we have the film’s famous final shot, a seven-minute sequence in which we see Locke lying on his bed before we see various cars arrive through the open window beyond.

The camera tracks slowly, slowly forward before then passing through the grille that otherwise blocks the window, circling around the dusty yard outside.

Locke is killed – notably offscreen – during this sequence, before the camera slowly, slowly returns to show us, now through the grille, Rachel, the girl, the hotel owner and some police officers standing over Locke’s body.

In other words, the camera – and by extension cinema – can pass through borders. It is a porous medium that embraces chaos and which flows; it is a flow-er, which takes us out of this world and into Eden, or a world without, beyond, and after humanity.

(At a push, I might provocatively add that the recent documentary, Nae pasarán, Felipe Bustos Sierra, UK, 2018, which tells the story of Scottish Rolls Royce workers who refused to do repairs on the engines of Pinochet’s Hawker Harrier jets in 1970s, also suggests that humans are at their best when they, too, defy borders and control. That is, cinema and socialism alike point to the flowers that humans can become, and as which we might bloom.)

It is perhaps only a series of chaotic coincidences that sets in motion the plot of The Passenger: Robertson dies in Locke’s hotel, the girl is in London and Barcelona, Rachel leads the government agents to Locke.

‘You work with words, images, fragile things,’ says Robertson to Locke back in the hotel. Images are fragile things, and they are not the concrete things that Robertson claims ‘people understand’ (and what he sells).

The world of hardness and borders is a world of war. Perhaps cinema is a world of love, even if it is a world of death,  a world of loving death, which loving is to deprive death of its fear-inducing power.

Westerners may condescendingly characterise Africa as being a continent stuck in the past. But Antonioni’s film perhaps also shows us that, in knowing that all things fall apart, it inevitably is also an image of our future. Cinema may show us images of the past (by definition, since what we see when we watch a film must be something that has already happened). But in what lies beyond the human, and what lies beyond the frame, perhaps this is where we find once again a future without humans, our future, cinema itself. Death itself. Flowering.