Modern Love as Warfare in Ira Sachs’ Passages, a Searing Parisian Menage-a-Not

Sachs crafts a smartly written, unabashedly explicit roundelay featuring a trio of appealing actors going through some emotionally and sexually daring paces. 

5 mins read

Ira Sachs’ Passages, about a Parisian menage-a-not between an egoist filmmaker, played with zeal by the great German actor Franz Rogowski, his long-suffering partner (Ben Whishaw) and a schoolteacher (Adele Exarchopolous) drawn into his orbit, is a lusty provocation about modern love warfare and the consequences of falling for a narcissist who takes everything yet gives little. It is smartly written, unabashedly explicit (and will be too much, for some) and features a trio of appealing actors going through some emotionally and sexually daring paces. 

Sachs, whose terrific 2014 picture Love is Strange found an memorable Alfred Molina and John Lithgow as a longtime, sexagenarian New York couple in crisis, has in Passages turned his lens to the younger generation for a hard-edged, all is fair in love treatise on the spoils of self possession in transient modern relationships; someone always gets hurt or worse. 

The magnetic cad at the center of Passages is one Tomas (Rogowski), a temperamental film director whom we first meet on set demanding multiple takes of an actor unable, as Tomas sees it, to naturally descend a staircase; such strident posture will extend from professional to personal. 

Trouble brews when Tomas’ jaded Martin (Whishaw) refuses to dance with him during the film’s wrap party, a contention economically conveyed in a few terse expressions. The problem, as it always is, is the chemistry—and theirs is going strong, even though the relationship is teetering. Tomas’ chance encounter with lovely Agathe (Exarchopolous) leads to an immediate connection between the unlikely pair, a fling that surprises the presumably gay artist as a respite from his failing partnership. 

Of course, he confesses his infidelity to Martin, who in turn plunges into an affair with an aspiring writer (Erwan Fale), a tacit permission for Tomas to continue with Agathe, whose kind compassion fancies a traditional relationship with free spirit Tomas. What she doesn’t know about him yet will ultimately hurt her, and a terrifically savage dinner scene finds Tomas’s dubious intentions under steely suspicion by Agathe’s protective mother (Caroline Chaniolleau). 

For his part, Tomas wants it all, shuttling back and forth between Agathe and Martin, playing both sides against the middle and in true fashion, trying to keep all options (for him) in the air, very much aware of the sexual and emotional pull each of his lovers has to him; he uses these as lures, keeping both boyfriend and girlfriend on the hook. On one side, he wants to continue a sexual relationship with abandoned Martin, shocked to find a new suitor sauntering naked around their formerly-shared flat. 

Meanwhile, he entertains notions of domestic bliss with Agathe, who slowly begins to realize what she has gotten herself into, beautifully played by Exarchopoulos with her signature emotional openness and fragility (on its fullest display since her Cannes-winning Blue is the Warmest Color debut). Once pregnancy ensues, the stakes become significantly higher.

In Passages, Sachs and his fearless actors peer into the explicit and carnal dimensions of their triangle, unapologetically capturing nudity in close-up, often placing cameras in the most intimate of areas. Such insatiable couplings are portrayed in the frankest and most extended sex scenes imaginable, devoid of tenderness and, at times, provoking an almost uncomfortable viewing experience; we feel as if we should perhaps not be looking. In an American movie landscape that often shies away from mature depictions of sex, Passages—made by an American filmmaker with an international cast, shot in Paris and speaking multiple languages—boldly returns to the unfiltered sexual frankness of bygone American movie eras.

That the picture is set in the City of Love heightens its ill-fated amour fou and stakes for its black hole protagonist, who just can’t help but believe his lovers are there for the taking, and leaving. By the time this toxic roundelay unspools, everyone will lose—Whishaw liberated but alone, peak empathy Exarchopoulos adrift and Rogowski, the potent star of last year’s powerful prison epic Great Freedom, facing the costs of his inner, rakish libertine. Or, perhaps, not.

A terrific film. 

3 1/2 stars

Passages opens August 4 in New York and Los Angeles and expands nationwide on August 11.

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