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Ira Sachs’ Lustrous Romantic Drama Passages Tackles a Tricky Love Triangle

6 minute read

There’s a great line from the early-’80s song “I Confess” by the English Beat in which the singer, right after acknowledging—almost bragging—that he’s ruined three lives, says he didn’t care until “I found out that one of them was mine.” You could think of Ira Sachs’ half-funny, half-melancholic Passages as a riff on that line, a story of three people not necessarily ruined by love, but definitely scraped raw by it—and the instigator of all this pain is, in the end, the one you feel the most for. This is a smart, lustrous film, and a bracingly honest one, the kind of movie that leaves you feeling both invigorated and a little blue.

Franz Rogowski’s Tomas is a director just finishing a movie—we see him guiding his actors with an almost ruthless exasperation, nearly losing his temper over the fact that one of them can barely descend a staircase in a natural, believable way. Later, in a bar, he meets a young woman, Adèle Exarchopoulos’ Agathe—or, rather, it’s Tomas’ husband, Martin (Ben Whishaw), who platonically picks her up, as he makes idle, friendly chitchat while they wait for their drinks. Tomas approaches, trying to urge Martin onto the dance floor, but something—we’re not yet sure what—is bothering him; he’s not in the mood. So Tomas and Agathe dance instead, and what begins as a dual expression of delight and release—part of the pure pleasure of dancing—somehow turns steamy, and Tomas and Agathe end up in bed. The next morning, Tomas returns to the Paris flat he shares with Martin and almost upon arrival blurts out, “I had sex with a woman. Can I tell you about it, please?”

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The line, as Rogowski delivers it, is hilarious in its bleak frankness, though we also see Martin’s consternation. Tomas has found his one-night adventure exhilarating. He felt something, he tells Martin, that he hasn’t felt in a long time, and he wants to explore it further. The two fight, not so much because Martin feels threatened or hurt (though of course there are glimmers of those feelings), but because, it becomes clear, he’s used to Tomas’ wayward impulses. They engage in a comic tussle over the hard-shell suitcase Tomas impulsively tries to pack. Martin leaves the flat with an exasperated parting salvo: “This always happens when you finish a film, you forget.”

passages
Franz Rogowski and Ben WhishawCourtesy of Mubi

In one compact scene we learn a lot about this marriage, and see some general earmarks of longtime marriages in general—the way two people can wear each other down a little, not necessarily out of cruelty but to ease the friction caused by the day-to-day meshing of lives. (Sachs wrote the script with Mauricio Zacharias, who also collaborated with him on the bruisingly beautiful 2014 picture Love Is Strange.) But as Tomas’ relationship with Agathe intensifies and becomes even more complicated, we begin to see the damage he’s wreaking on everyone around him. He and Martin break up—or maybe they don’t. Martin launches into a tentative relationship with a rather intense but not unkind writer (Erwan Kepoa Falé’s Amad)—or maybe he doesn’t. 

Meanwhile, Agathe—as attracted as she is Tomas—says almost nothing, but we see that she’s proceeding with self-protective caution. No one is trying to pretend this is business as usual. At the same time, this is simply a story of three young, beautiful people availing themselves of the freedom to explore, and to make mistakes, both in bed and out of it. This freedom seems like a forever gift when you’re living it, though of course it’s not. Sachs surveys this landscape without judgment, and often with a sense of joy, but he’s never blind to the pain that a self-centered guy like Tomas—exuberant, charismatic, sometimes waifishly innocent—can cause.

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As Rogowski plays him, Tomas is both maddening and achingly vulnerable. After having sort-of moved in with Agathe, he rushes back to Martin for an impulsive tryst. (The sex scenes in Passages, both carnal and intimate, are explicit enough to have earned the film an NC-17 rating, though there’s nothing sensationalistic about them; they’re simply part of the emotional minuet these characters are enacting.) Then he zips back to Agathe’s flat on his bicycle—it’s his chief mode of transportation through the streets of Paris, and he’s always on it, pedaling away as if trying to outrun a self he doesn’t understand. He’s supposed to have lunch with her deeply conventional parents, who have already arrived. It’s comical when he bursts through the door, wearing leopard-print pants and a tiny mesh T-shirt dotted with dragons, but what’s less funny is the way, a little later, he buckles under their protective scrutiny. They want to know that he’ll stand by their daughter. Tomas doesn’t think he should have to prove himself to them, but what becomes apparent, in the defensive anxiety flashing in Rogowski’s eyes, is that he has everything to prove, and possibly very little to give.

PASSAGES
Adèle Exarchopoulos and Ben WhishawCourtesy of MUBI

Against all of this, Exarchopoulos’ Agathe is both watchful and hopeful. She’s in love with Tomas, maybe, but he’s all sorts of bad news, and deep down she knows it. Exarchopoulos isn’t an emotive actor; everything about her is subterranean, a little guarded, though that quality draws us in rather than pushing us away. There’s something Bardot-like about her, both in the softness of her features and in her blasé flirtatiousness. But there’s a tough practicality there, too; you could picture her cradling a kitten in one hand and brandishing a pistol in the other. 

And Whishaw, always a wonderful performer, may seem at first to be locked in the role of the sensible husband. But a late scene with Exarchopoulos explodes that. There’s both wariness between these two characters and an enduring bond that will last the rest of their lives, even if they never see each other again. And these are the two who haven’t slept together. Sachs has said that he wanted to make a movie specifically geared to actors, to give them an open, honest space to do their thing. With Passages, he’s done that and more. We see three lives—and three bodies, with all their inherent, confusing desires—in transition. Harmony and happiness may be the ultimate goals. But it’s the getting there that’s the stuff of life. 

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