Director: Ira Sachs Starring: Franz Rogowski, Ben Whishaw, Adèle Exarchopoulos Running Time: 92 minutes
An emerging aversion to sex and sexuality on screen is one of those online trends it can be difficult to gauge for real life impact. There is always the question of how seriously to take something so un-serious, and the dismissal of the depiction of sex in cinemas as “pointless” avoids the rich well of emotion, the insights and expressions that become clear when we see characters in moments of intimacy. Film In Dublin has looked at this before, but how exciting for us, and for audiences, to get a film as thoroughly dismissive of that discourse as Passages, an electric and erotic story that gets to an honest emotional heart. Ira Sachs’ latest feature wears its sexual openness on its sleeve, or it would if its mesh tanktop had sleeves to begin with.
Introduced to Tomas, an intense and extroverted filmmaker wrapping his latest work, we immediately see a maddeningly charismatic but controlling figure. Going in on actor for not walking down the stairs relaxed enough, he seems himself demanding, tightly wound. Restlessly buzzing and insisting his quiet husband Martin dance with him at the wrap party, we see in fact that he’s so eager to unwind that he laps and wraps right back around tightly again, a pinball Id pinging off everything in his path. Franz Rogowski and Ben Whishaw play the couple with the weight of history, with a chemistry that has burned out and in and out again. When Adèle Exarchopoulos’ Agathe offers Tomas a sympathetic dance, he seizes on the attention with abandon. Soon they’re dancing all night. Then they’re after-partying at her place. Then they’re in her bedroom. When morning breaks, Tomas cycles home like a school boy to tell his tired husband that he had sex with a woman, asking can he tell Martin about it. Martin is stung, but well past being surprised.
The setup is simple, small and effective. Other than a rebound author Martin hooks up with, the story retains a tight focus on the central threesome, as Tomas bounces between the different and new in his relationship with Agathe and the charged and familiar with Martin. The presentation by Sachs is well suited to this kind of story – spacious but static shots in open plan kitchens or regular café seats create the feeling of closeness, a feeling that Tomas craves but rails against constantly.
In previous films like Keep the Lights On or Love Is Strange, Sachs similarly showed the contextual depth that a space creates for a couple. Here when Tomas is cycling in secret to Agathe’s apartment it has the warm and hazey feel appropriate of an illicit lover’s den, the camera hanging back awkwardly as they ride passionately on her couch. The second he’s kicked out by Martin and moves in for an extended stay, the colours wash out and the walls close in.
The camera loves Rogoswki, all frenetic energy and outrageously innocent line deliveries. He knows the exact petulant, willfully ignorant body language with which to stride into every room. Tomas acts like a room doesn’t exist until he’s in it, sneaking into someone’s bed, allowing himself into homes he’s been banished from, strolling in late to meet the parents, Rogoswki’s swagger is a combo of charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent greater than any seen on screen in some time. The contradictions of his character snap into a lovely, lonely focus – how Tomas needs someone so badly that a blazing row is equally effective as a night of passion, how he pokes and prods just to evoke any reaction – and then instantly retreats with equal force, using the closeness he gets as a launching pad straight into another pair of arms, unable to sit on one thing too long. In his character’s vulnerable vanity, Rogoswki’s star turn is a great display of self immolation as an act of self preservation. As infuriating, audacious and ignorantly arrogant as his character behaves, you never for a moment question his magnetism over others.
But that’s not to say his performance dominates. The tension of Passages comes from the way that Tomas tries to writhe and wriggle between lovers who are both drawn to him and exhausted by how clearly they have his number. Whishaw seethes with deadpan disappointment, worn out and weary from his husband’s moods, oversights and flights of fancy. But Whishaw, a subtly expressive actor, visibly seizes up when having it out with Rogoswki, displaying overly-determined eye contact and rigid posture, Whishaw forces Martin to stand tall and stand up for himself – a feat the character can far better manage in resisting his husband’s bullshit than his body.
Exarchopoulos, in the midst of a banner year, is looser, ostensibly more laissez-faire. We see that Agathe is along for the ride with Tomas only to the extent that ride doesn’t cross her hard lines – she notices him cycling past them far quicker than he does. Like Whishaw’s character, she finds herself disappointed, but where he’s devastated to be made a fool again, Exarchopoulos’ grace and restraint reflect her character’s distance, aloof via anticipation, open to the joy that comes with being with him but well aware, resigned to the rejection. Tomas says he loves her, and she knows its a line, a line he’s so reliant on he doesn’t even know he’s using it.
Passages is a story of desire, of two members of a love triangle wanting something in spite of themselves, and the other feeling the want itself so desperately he doesn’t even know what he wants. In so far as these confused characters experience clarity, it’s in the bedroom, where the infuriating Tomas is effortlessly desirable, where meek Martin takes charge, where alienated Agathe is alive. The film’s NC-17 rating in the United States implies these scenes to be empty debauchery, rather than deeply revealing moments, or deeply necessary relievers of tension. It’s worth being mindful of the anti-LGTBQIA coding that can come with these implications, and the ways the imagination can run away with them inadvertently. The sex here isn’t some explicit, easy and empty thrill for audiences, but an expression of how, when we lay ourselves bare, we’re free – and how that can be taken for granted.
For all that sex is selling Passages, and for all that it is, yes Twitter, essential to the plot, the sex seen from the lovers of this story is of a piece with their arguments, their awkward morning-after conversations, their dinners and dances – as part of an insightful, exciting melodrama, a personal, tender and human affair.(4 / 5)