Passages: Ira Sachs imbues the messiness of love and lust with grace

An impetuous Franz Rogowski, a low-key Adèle Exarchopoulos and a cerebral Ben Whishaw form the three corners of a scalene love triangle in this elegant drama.

28 January 2023

By Nicolas Rapold

Ben Whishaw and Franz Rogowski as Martin and Tomas in Passages (2023)
Sight and Sound
  • Reviewed from the 2023 Sundance Film Festival

At one point in Ira Sachs’s Passages, Tomas (Franz Rogowski), a German filmmaker without much of a filter, is talking heatedly about responsibility with the sceptical parents of Agathe (Adèle Exarchopoulos), a schoolteacher with whom he’s lunged into an affair. His exasperated words about how he should be trusted don’t inspire much confidence in anyone present; they capture what could be called an in-the-moment approach to decision-making, faithful to his impulses and fairly careless about the feelings of others. The gathering drama of the film tracks how the growing strain – not least between Tomas and his husband, print designer Martin (Ben Whishaw) – pushes things to a breaking point.

It’s at a Paris wrap party that Tomas first falls for Agathe, who has just dismissed her hapless crewmember boyfriend with Gallic curtness. Tomas’s passion for her is downright hungry; in part, his attraction seems to stem in part from the novelty of their connection, the terrain of a new experience. But since he shares an artistic milieu (and a house in the country) with Martin, Tomas’s relationship with Agathe threatens to bring on another series of commitments that don’t seem to fit his independence. When she gets pregnant, it’s not clear how devoted Tomas is truly capable of being: what happens when desire, jealousy or simply lovelorn homesickness leads him back to Martin, who’s begun testing the waters with a handsome writer?

Sachs and co-writer Mauricio Zacharias gracefully extend these themes in new directions from their prior couple portraits Love Is Strange (2014) and (though Tomas’s flame is brightly burning) Keep the Lights On (2012). They are assisted by the performances: Exarchopoulos is low-key as Agathe, who recedes somewhat in the film’s scheme after the initial passion of their affair. Rogowski leans into Tomas’s unself-conscious physicality; there’s a certain eruptive tension in the way he speaks that suits his character’s expectation of commanding attention, as well as his need to do so. Meanwhile, Whishaw elegantly locates Martin’s centre of gravity at the top of his head, though this changes in the film’s sex scenes, which are genuinely expressive of character and performance rather than functioning as exclamation points.

The movie hinges on Tomas’s careening momentum, and when he’s tearfully begging Agathe in a hallway at the school where she works, it’s hard to shake an image of him as a big sloppy kid in his heedlessness. But he keeps on going, and the film’s maturity lies in granting Tomas’s lovers the strength to say ‘Enough’, even as they recognise the welter of emotions roiling inside him.

Other things to explore

reviews

All You Need is Death: hallucinatory horror captures the alchemical power of Irish folk ballads

By Roger Luckhurst

All You Need is Death: hallucinatory horror captures the alchemical power of Irish folk ballads
reviews

The Book of Clarence: a messy, genre-blending Biblical epic

By Arjun Sajip

The Book of Clarence: a messy, genre-blending Biblical epic
reviews

If Only I Could Hibernate: a beautifully crafted Mongolian drama

By Tom Charity

If Only I Could Hibernate: a beautifully crafted Mongolian drama