A love triangle runs its course
Sexual desire flickers, burns and then burns out in Ira Sachs’ new movie Passages. Tomas (Franz Rogowski), a filmmaker, is a restless soul who exudes a magnetism that both attracts and repels. Moths enjoy the feeling of singeing their wings in his flame. The opening sequence takes place on the set of Tomas’ latest project, creating a disorienting start that appears to signal a behind-the-scenes look at the film we’re about to watch, à la Irma Vep—until Sachs’ camera startles us to suddenly find Tomas marching forward into the frame.
As a director, Tomas is demanding, controlling and temperamental, but he knows exactly what he wants. Guided by the demands of his body and his feral emotions, that artistic approach doesn’t work as well in his personal life. At the wrap party later that night, Tomas’ husband Martin (Ben Whishaw) overhears a stranger, Agathe, breaking up with her boyfriend. He introduces himself to Agathe (Adèle Exarchopoulos) at the bar right before Tomas arrives to ask Martin to dance.
Martin declines, citing an early work day before taking his leave. Agathe then takes Martin’s place on the dance floor, where an unexpected chemistry ignites between her and Tomas. They end the evening by spending the night together at Agathe’s. When he returns home to Martin the next morning, Tomas is exhilarated by his newfound experience of sleeping with a woman. He confesses his infidelity, hoping Martin will vicariously share his enthusiasm.
Tolerant up to a point, Martin is nonplussed by, but used to, his husband’s occasional infidelities. But as Tomas and Agathe’s shared passion persists beyond a one-night stand, Martin and Tomas’s marriage quickly disintegrates. A lesser movie would dwell on contemporary issues such as the complexities of throupledom, Tomas’ fluidity or on Agathe’s unquestioning acceptance of his bisexuality.
Sachs, who co-wrote the film, captures something more elusive about the nature of desire and its connection to the creation of art. Tomas, a screen apparition akin to Todd Field’s Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett), is as destructive as Lydia, both to himself and to those he loves. But he’s a nimbler character who benefits from the brisk pace of Sachs’ editing and overall assemblage. The director doesn’t weigh each frame down with dread. Passages is a melancholy film animated by the chaos Tomas unleashes with his arsenal of conflicted emotions.
Objecting to Lydia Tár’s politically incorrect behavior was a nonstarter. Field and Blanchett’s collaboration resulted in an abstraction, a symbol, a simulacrum of a person but not the real thing. In Passages, Tomas, too, is a celluloid monster made up of competing urges. His relationship with Martin stabilizes and inhibits his creative id. Bored by the familiar sheets tangling up their marriage bed, Tomas needs to risk losing Martin in order to desire him again, and, as he puts it, “to grow.”
Rogowski, a German actor, has appeared in a number of Christian Petzold’s films. In his native language, Rogowski often plays subdued or unpredictable men of few words who might explode at any given moment. Speaking in English, his voice emits a determined, staccato rhythm that liberates his body and his emotions. As Tomas, the actor cannot suppress the character’s harmful electricity. In Passages, he’s excitable and explosive.
What Tomas doesn’t or cannot anticipate is that he meets his match in Martin and Agathe. He storms through their lives with an array of arresting demands. Both are willing to humor, serve and service him—until they wake up to assess the damage. Rogowski’s face has the smashed-up quality of a bruised and battle-scarred boxer. It’s easy to see why Martin and Agathe respond to him. He’s brutally honest, uninhibited, in need of care and also reckless.
As Tomas confronts and dodges any pledge of commitment, Martin and Agathe gradually abandon their resolve to remain with him. In that sense, Passages is an unromantic movie about failed love affairs. Like Lydia Tár, Tomas is an avatar of unrestrained chaos and the darker impulses that fuel artists to take advantage of mortals in their thrall.
Tomas embodies the spirit of cinema, a forceful compilation of images that can wreck the viewer to tears, infuriate one’s bones and suggest the idea of heaven. Passages is also an explicit romance between moviegoers and the achievement of their unrealised fantasies that appear, so much larger than life, on the screens above them.
‘Passages’ is now playing in select Bay Area theaters.