Review: 'Passages' Follows Its Tempestuous Heart
C.J. Prince READ TIME: 3 MIN.
Nothing really goes according to plan in "Passages," the latest film from director Ira Sachs ("Keep the Lights On," "Love is Strange"). Set in Paris, France, the film opens with director Tomas (Franz Rogowski) on set, losing his cool over an actor unable to hit their mark. Later, when Tomas and his husband Martin (Ben Whishaw) attend the wrap party for Tomas' movie, Martin leaves earlier than planned, and Tomas ends up on the dancefloor with Agathe (Adèle Exarchopoulos). The two end up having sex that night, and the next morning Tomas happily tells a displeased Martin all about it.
Tomas' baffling actions introduce the unconventional love triangle at the center of "Passages," with Sachs and co-writer Mauricio Zacharias putting the focus on Tomas as he hops back and forth between husband and lover. Tomas doesn't show guilt over his infidelity, nor does he question his own identity. He simply lets his desires dictate everything, with next to no consideration for how it might impact those closest to him. Watching this unfold might feel infuriating to viewers, since Sachs spends little time on motive. Like Martin and Agathe, we're forced to react to Tomas rather than try to understand him.
These choices shouldn't come as too much of a surprise from a filmmaker like Sachs. His films aren't afraid to foreground emotions over plot, and characters have the room to merely exist on their own, not as a function in service to a large metaphor or idea. Sachs and cinematographer Josée Deshaies tend to use locations meant for the short-term rather than living spaces: Bars, restaurants, offices, stairwells, hallways, or even Tomas and Martin's vacation home in the countryside tend to be Tomas' domain. Even when he's in his apartment, he's usually on his way in or out, compared to Martin and Agathe, who have no issue staying in one place. The world of "Passages," from its varied locales in Paris to the gorgeous outfits worn by its three leads, reflects its characters and their behaviors in ways that feel organic rather than fussed over or dictated.
There's something pleasurable about watching a filmmaker like Sachs in action, who understands the power of desire and longing, and trusts the audience to infer and react instinctively. There's a lengthy sex scene between Tomas and Martin at one point – the first time we see them intimate with each other – and Sachs shows it in a single, unbroken shot. This one scene, through little more than its performers and their physicality, says more about these two characters and their relationship to each other than pages of exposition could ever do in its place.
And while "Passages" has its highlights, it's not without its limitations. As compelling of a presence Tomas may be, warts and all, Sachs is straightforward with regards to story, so it doesn't take too long to figure Tomas out. Once his impulsive, noncommittal nature is established, the film enters into a holding pattern as we wait for the consequences of his actions to catch up with him. Parts of "Passages" turn into a waiting game as a result, and while Rogowski, Whishaw, and Exarchopoulos remain as watchable as ever, they can't break out of the story's self-imposed confines.
Those issues, while minor, stick out mainly because they're within such an outlier of a film. While the box office currently has people flocking to see an adaptation of a toy line and a biopic somehow marketed into a full-blown event, "Passages" represents a now all-too-rare offering of a mature film intended for mature audiences. And while it's not entirely fair to place something like "Passages" in the context of mature versus immature, or think of it in terms of what it might represent versus what it actually is, Sachs' exploration of these three lives, along with their passions, wants, and heartbreaks, can't help but exist in opposition to our current social climate. The fact that the aforementioned sex scene earned it an NC-17 rating is only further proof of this.
"Passages" comes to theaters unrated and uncut on Aug. 4.