Film Review: Passages


American indie director Ira Sachs returns to UK screens with his comic romantic drama Passages, a pointed, revealing study of selfishness and an all-too familiar portrait of emotional indulgence, bolstered by three excellent lead performances.

Following up her superb turn in The Five Devils, Adèle Exarchopoulos continues to impress as Agathe, a young teacher caught in the middle of an in intolerable matrimonial drama. Ben Whishaw, too, gives a career-topping performance as Tomas’ long-suffering husband Martin, but it is German actor Franz Rogowski – by turns charming, sexy and profoundly slappable – who steals the show.

The shenanigans of Tomas – a German director with shades of Fassbinder – become all the more infuriating with Rogowski playing him like an oblivious innocent: a sociopath who doesn’t set out to cause harm, but doesn’t care that he does. Tomas has just completed his latest film – the eponymously titled Passages – but his husband Martin is acting oddly distant. At the wrap party, Martin goes home early while Tomas stays behind, talking to Agathe before going home with her, beginning a deeply-ill advised affair.

Sachs’ humanistic direction reveals moments of desire in its ellipses: while Agathe and Tomas dance, edits that suggest small passages of time elicit excitement and growing desire. Later, during the film’s numerous sex scenes, the camera remains still while the characters move in and out of frame, bringing out a spontaneous clumsiness that is rarely seen on sex on screen while remaining unapologetically explicit in the scenes between Martin and Tomas. A recurring motif of his partners frequently shushing Tomas during their lovemaking comically underscores his inexhaustible insufferability.

The messiness and the modernity of our protagonists’ love triangle is only one half of Passages, however. It is also a portrait of weakness. Weakness on the part on of Tomas’ depthless selfishness, and weakness and the part of his lovers’ forgiveness of it. Tomas is in essence an adult toddler, devoid of empathy or self-awareness, acting out of pure id and emotional immediacy, while Martin and Agathe’s indulgence of his behaviour dooms them both to an endless cycle of exploitation. There is almost a political dimension to the lengths to which the court of King Tomas will suffer his emotional whims. When finally his indulgences go too far the question hangs in the air whether he will be finally be ejected from his throne of pleasure. Them’s the breaks, one might be inclined to reflect.

Passages’ greatest success is its familiarity. Its observation of an overly indulged, emotionally-spoilt man-baby obliviously wrecking the lives he professes to care about reveals something about our attraction to such parasitic characters, their power as they drain our lifeblood and their pity once we shake them from our backs.

Christopher Machell