Sundance 2023

Passages review – sad and impossibly sensual story of a love triangle

Franz Rogowski, Ben Whishaw, and Adèle Exarchopoulos star in writer-director Ira Sach's sexually-charged portrait of a narcissist

“I had sex with a woman. Can I tell you about it?” asks a brazen Tomas (Franz Rogowski) to his long-time husband, Martin (Ben Whishaw), early in Ira Sachs’ Passages. The woman at hand is Agathe (Adèle Exarchopoulos), a young teacher Tomas met on the set of his latest film. Curiosity turns into passion, a hormone-infused feeling that leads the filmmaker to believe to be edging close to love. This is, he thinks, enough reason to leave his husband, and out the door he goes into the arms of his fresh new lover.

Narcissists are often uninteresting. This is a great part of why Passages works so well: it is the endlessly interesting Franz Rogowski who plays the unbearably self-absorbed director. It is easy to imagine being lulled into his presence, the eagerness to overlook the parade of red flags a natural byproduct of his charm. Sachs is clever in never dwelling on Tomas’ creative merits. We don’t know whether or not he is a maverick genius, and we don’t need to. The attraction here is primal, disconnected from the refined appeal of perceived brilliance.

In fact, the conversations between Tomas’ and his romantic interests are void of any proper depth, rudeness cunningly disguised as wit. Martin and Agathe are unremittingly patient in their shrugging of shoulders, courteously ignoring the director’s petulant tirades. In this pattern, they are both parental, coddling the ever-childish man while quietly tending to their emotional wounds, too exhausted to embark on confrontations that will inevitably lead to frustration.

Tomas is a sleek creature, rubbing against limbs as if a house cat, prancing like a lynx. In Rogowski’s performance lies a deep understanding of sexuality relating to movement – he contorts in passivity and pounces in hungry conquest, his sharp edges cutting through bodies and spaces alike. Costume design expertly amplifies this notion, wrapping the man in skin-tight crop tops and beautifully woven crochet blouses, his skin always on display, unshakeable confidence translated through his lack of care for unspoken social norms.

Yes, Passages is impossibly sensual, but there is a lingering sadness in the primal urges that have Martin and Agathe welcoming Tomas into the safety of their beds time and time again, their bodies softly surrendering to the ravenous passion that harbours unprocessed anger. Alas, pleasure proves a flimsy Band-Aid, and it is precisely in the painful removal of this bandage that Sachs’ film finds its greatest laurel: a raw, heartbreaking understanding of how cruelty can bitterly bite away at beauty.

Passages was screened as part of the Sundance Film Festival 2023. A UK release date is yet to be announced.

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