A charismatic but demanding gay man starts an affair with a woman, while trying to hang on to his husband.
American director Ira Sachs makes films that explore relationships—of all kinds, although he’s well known as an important figure in gay cinema since the late 1990s. His latest picture is called Passages, and I think it’s his most remarkable yet. The word “passages” is a way to describe the life of relationships, their lows and heights, the often complicated journey of feelings involved.
We meet a young man in the midst of directing a film. His demands on the actors and crew are forcefully, that is to say harshly, expressed. This is Tomas, played by Franz Rogowski, a driven personality, extraordinarily free in his manner, a gay German in Paris, married to Martin, a brilliant young Englishman played by Ben Whishaw. We learn all this somewhat randomly in the first twenty minutes or so, but the film starts right off with Tomas encountering a young French woman named Agathe, and played by Adèle Exarchopoulos. They go to bed that same night. Later, Tomas tells Martin about it, saying it was a new kind of exciting experience for him. He expects his husband to just accept this, but of course Martin will have trouble with it.
So in the abstract, the situation is of a gay man turning towards being straight, and then maybe wanting to be both at the same time. But Sachs’s film is anything but abstract. Co-written with Mauricio Zacharias and Arlette Langmann, Passages is resolutely focused on human beings and their real desires and faults, not on stereotypes.
At the center is a mesmerizing performance by Rogowski as Tomas—he’s risen to be one of the best actors in cinema in recent years. We first see Tomas’s self-centeredness, but then Rogowski shows us many other aspects: he has a kind of gentle assertiveness and honesty; we can understand why he seems attractive to his two lovers; the film never tells us to hate him; the serious problems that he exhibits simply become more evident, as they would in real life with someone we know that has such issues. We could call him a sex and romance addict, but the character is too complex to be dismissed so simply. Both of his partners endure a kind of roller coaster ride, ecstatic but also tragic and hurtful.
Key to the filmmakers’ notions about the characters is that sex is good and desirable and important. I think it’s weird that this point of view could be controversial at all, but there you are. There’s lots of explicit sex in the movie, and the director chooses to make it as realistic and lengthy as he can. This is a major reason that Tomas, Martin, and Agathe are involved with each other, and Sachs makes us experience and feel this viscerally. At the same time we know, or suspect, that emotional intimacy is always just out of reach for Tomas, who seems to desire whichever partner is not currently in his life.
By the way, there are conversations that are in French—not too many, but we are in Paris, after all. Sachs makes an interesting stylistic choice here: no subtitles. I don’t know French, so at first I was annoyed. Then I was won over by the idea. Just as in real life, I listen to languages I don’t understand, and there are no subtitles to help. In any case, if you pay attention you can understand the gist of the scenes.
Passages is a brilliant, dark, fascinating fever dream—starring: the wounded narcissist in all of us.