'Passages' — Ira Sachs' intense drama

  • by Kyle Amato
  • Tuesday August 8, 2023
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Ben Whishaw, Adèle Exarchopoulos and Franz Rogowski in 'Passages' (photo: MUBI)
Ben Whishaw, Adèle Exarchopoulos and Franz Rogowski in 'Passages' (photo: MUBI)

Director Ira Sachs returns with another incisive character piece, though this one is far meaner than usual. "Passages" (MUBI) focuses on Tomas (Franz Rogowski), a narcissistic film director who, on a whim, decides to sleep with a woman named Agathe (Adèle Exarchopoulos) at his wrap party.

Much to the chagrin of his husband Martin (Ben Whishaw), Tomas claims this evening has awakened something within him. Tomas feels inspired for the first time in ages and decides this one-night stand could be so much more, abandoning Martin and pursuing a relationship with Agathe.

"Passages" feels like a particularly nasty French New Wave film, but one with a gay relationship at the center. I am always interested in any gay narrative that isn't about coming out of the closet, as queer life is far more than just the decision to tell straight people who we are.

Tomas views straight life as transgressive and is trying it on like a fun outfit, totally unconcerned with the people he's hurting. The second Agathe starts to bore him or ask anything of him, Tomas goes right back to Martin and vice-versa. He cannot be sated by love, he needs the world to revolve around his happiness.

Rogowski makes this near-sociopathic man extremely compelling to watch, smooth and sensual enough that you believe his lovers would keep coming back to him despite his many flaws. His voice can go from a seductive whisper to a violent snarl in a moment, his body coiling like a snake ready to pounce.

Exarchopoulos and Whishaw are able to match Rogowski's intensity while bringing different types of vulnerability to their roles. In many ways the film is a classic European marriage drama where jealous insults fly, sex is frequent, and dinners with the in-laws are made dreadfully awkward. Sachs is having too much fun indulging his acrid side for "Passages" to get too maudlin.

Though there is an explicit sex scene between Rogowski and Whishaw, the film is passionate and intimate, not gratuitous. The MPA's recent decision to give the film an NC-17 rating is ridiculous and bordering on homophobic, a decision which MUBI is rightly ignoring. There is no re-editing this story to have less sex, and any attempts would diminish it.

"Passages" can be understood by a single character detail. Although Tomas lives and works in Paris, he still does not speak a word of French. He deals with this language barrier every day and does not seem interested in changing it, even when meeting Agathe's very French parents.

"Passages" is the story of a man who is only interested in what benefits him, never what he can do to benefit others. Spending time with him is to root for his downfall, and what a time Ira Sachs has given us.

'Passages screens at Opera Plaza Cinema Aug. 11-17.



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