By Matthew Eng
Dir. Ira Sachs, France/Germany, MUBI
It begins on a dance floor. She is a teacher who has been hanging around a film set, hooking up with the cute clapperboard guy. He is a director more evidently skilled in the art of emotional terrorism. But she doesn’t know that—at least not yet. For now, they are two sweaty, steady bodies cavorting at the shoot’s wrap party. And when he drifts away, perhaps to head home to the fatigued husband who made a hasty exit moments before, she pulls him back into her open arms, thus sealing their fates.
In Passages, Ira Sachs and his writing partner Mauricio Zacharias fashion a revelatory Parisian love triangle from an unanticipated flash of lust. Tomas (Franz Rogowski), the director, comes home the morning after the party and decides to lob a bomb into the middle of his staid marriage to Martin (Ben Whishaw), the operator of a printing press. The bomb in question is Agathe (Adèle Exarchopoulos), the teacher who, not long after that first dance, seizes the libido and love of Tomas, a man who has never thought of himself as anything other than gay. Tomas’s disclosure undoes his life with Martin and precipitates a new one with Agathe, their liaison soon transformed into domesticity. But no arrangement remains stable in Sachs’s film.
After helming six features in the States, the New York–based Sachs struck up a partnership with the French-Tunisian producer Saïd Ben Saïd and ventured to Portugal to make 2019’s Frankie, a sluggish star vehicle for Isabelle Huppert that boasted a prize ensemble yet seemed hellbent on muffling its potentially potent tensions. Sachs’s dramas have balanced their slender narratives with richly resided-in evocations of people and milieus, surveying the uneasy and often breakable bonds between lovers, companions, and kin. But Passages is the first of Sachs’s films whose leanness feels effectively and exhilaratingly taut. There is still a casual, off-the-cuff air to his filmmaking, which always captures the lulls and longueurs of his protagonists’ lives as much as the passions and hostilities. But as edited by Sophie Reine, Sachs’s latest advances with a violent precision, the better to cut to the core of these characters and their furtive connections. If Sachs’s previous films were slow burns, then Passages is a wildfire.
Tomas, a breathtakingly restless and ruthless creation, is the one fanning the flames. Vivified with sensuous voracity and proud spite by Rogowski, he is a petty tyrant, whether berating extras on set or striding around his and Martin’s well-appointed apartment, a chamber of misery more frigid than the Paris winter that elapses outside; only the couple’s squabbling generates any real heat. One of the primary delights of Passages derives from the permission Sachs grants his actors to be callous, calculating, covetous, submissive, and self-deluding—in other words, emotionally complex in the least sanitized meaning of the term—without agonizing over or apologizing for their moral characters. There are lighter shades to be found amid the treachery: the initial horniness between Tomas and Agathe also harbors a blushing tenderness, as when the pair shares a favorite song with each other, echoing a scene from one of the director’s key influences, Jean Eustache’s recently resuscitated masterpiece The Mother and the Whore (1973).
Like this forebear, Sachs is keen to let his characters misbehave to excess and bruise each other in the process, safe in the certainty that films can and should depict even the most unidealized facets of human behavior. One can glean Sachs skewering European codes of decorum (epitomized by Agathe’s appalled bourgeois parents, played by Olivier Rabourdin and a deliciously unsparing Caroline Chaniolleau) and sexual liberality. But these critiques never override the high drama and comic entropy, the latter epitomized in an instantly indelible moment in which Tomas arrives late to a meeting with his would-be in-laws in a sheer crop top.
At times, Passages cannot help but read as a rejoinder and provocation to representation-minded audiences seeking defanged, overwhelmingly positive depictions of queer persons. The film also arrives at a moment when a vocal portion of the culture is intent on re-litigating the ethics and efficacy of the increasingly nonexistent sex scene, rashly casting it as an issue of consent and deeming those who want to see sex on screen as immoral voyeurs. Passages, which is being released by MUBI in the U.S. without a rating after garnering an NC-17 from the MPAA, pivots around a trio of deftly captured, highly realistic sex scenes, the last of them a single take in which Whishaw pounds Rogowski in a missionary pose, a torrid detente in the middle of their characters’ strained relations. It is next to impossible to recall the last film told largely in English where sex between two men has been this forthright, unembarrassed, and bracingly erotic. Sex doesn’t need to be narratively justified or thematically pertinent to be vital to Sachs’s film. Rather, it is sex itself that endows the film with a more vigorous and rounded vitality. Each encounter is choreographed, acted, and shot with a nuanced conviction—encompassing joy, boredom, and avidity—that stresses sex’s significance to this triad but also locates it as one of numerous facets in each of their lives.
That we become so invested in these lives is very much a testament to the respective gifts of the film’s three leads. Sachs is a canny assembler and director of actors, allowing us the pleasure of watching these particular performers build scenes side by side in the same frame, gauging each other’s fraught pauses and veiled motives. Tomas could be a lost Fassbinder libertine, his vanity and vulnerability encapsulated in the leonine intensity and kaleidoscopic expressivity of Rogowski, who adds another hot-blooded, unforgettable entry to his growing gallery of rogues and misfits. A decade after her galvanic arrival in Blue Is the Warmest Color (2013), Exarchopoulos remains a radically transparent presence; here she makes the viewer feel like a private confidante to Agathe, as if tethered to her by an invisible string. Whishaw, restrained enough to quell any memories of his Forrest Gumpian turn in last year’s Women Talking, is immensely sympathetic as a man accustomed to subordinating his own selfhood and talking his partner off the ledge of many a cataclysmic tantrum. (During one early morning argument, Rogowski’s direct-to-camera positioning at the edge of a bed all but eclipses Whishaw in the scene.) Exarchopoulos and Whishaw ensure that their characters are not just satellites orbiting Rogowski’s heavenly body but full-fledged entities. Only Erwan Kepoa Falé’s Ahmed, a sweet-tempered novelist with whom Martin strikes up his own dalliance, is let down by the screenplay, left on the margins of the film to offer warnings and wisdom about characters more layered than him.
Passages stays furiously focused on the present, refraining from delving too deeply into the pasts and psychologies of Tomas, Martin, and Agathe. The histories of these characters are interwoven with their desires and doubts into the diamond-cut dialogue, kindle with which the film’s leads make fire. Screenwriter Arlette Langmann, a collaborator of Maurice Pialat and Philippe Garrel and a pillar of the French narrative cinema that informs Sachs’s vision here, contributed additional dialogue to the film. Langmann is the spiritual bridge connecting Passages to a work like Pialat’s À nos amours (1983), whose screenplay was inspired by the sexual rebellion and familial enmity of her adolescence. These films share raw nerves and clear eyes, as well as an understanding that we are nothing if not inconsistent creatures, caught in a perpetual flux that makes us strangers to ourselves and each other; the end of one metamorphosis begets another. The second Tomas allows himself contentment, ensconced in his country home with not one lover but two, the other shoe drops. In Passages, as in life, stability is an illusion broken by an inner stirring for something else, a whisper in the mind that insolubly wonders, What now?