Venomous, Sexy Queer Romance Passages Lives in the Fallout of a Narcissist’s Dalliance

Movies Reviews Sundance 2023
Venomous, Sexy Queer Romance Passages Lives in the Fallout of a Narcissist’s Dalliance

With Passages, Ira Sachs brings beautiful devastation. The thorny relationships he usually explores push on boundaries of monogamy, of commitment, of what it means to be with someone and stay with them through the complexity of years. The pressure he exerts on these limits—necessarily drawn (but not always happily accepted) with more give for queer people, particularly gay men—the love that ebbs and flows throughout this adversity, and the limits themselves stagger us with their realism. Passages is this close, painful, sexy twisting of the screws at its best, as Sachs and his frequent co-writer Mauricio Zacharias observe the havoc wreaked by a bisexual brat’s latest dalliance.

Sachs so deftly avoids the stereotype of the greedy have-it-all bisexual that he comes back around on it, creating a perfectly punchable narcissist (who’s sexy enough to back up the bad behavior) in Tomas (Franz Rogowski). A recent muse of Christian Petzold, Rogowski projects a scrunched, dense entitlement tightly packed into flashy crop tops, mesh shirts and patterned pants. He imbues Tomas with a weaponized petulance, not so much disguised as ornamented. Naturally, he’s a filmmaker.

Given to whims and his own ego, Tomas leaves his bookish, quiet husband Martin (Ben Whishaw) behind at his film shoot’s wrap party in order to hook up with a rebounding extra, Agathe (Adèle Exarchopoulos). It’s not that this is explicitly forbidden within the definition of their marriage. We understand that not only does Tomas tend to do this kind of thing, especially when faced with any kind of real-world stress (like finishing a movie), but that they’ve talked about how to respectfully navigate trysts. Tomas doesn’t do this respectfully. He’s a sloppy little jerk about it, manipulating from the first moment. It’s also unique in that, for the first time in a long time, he’s dicking Martin around for a woman.

The clarity with which Sachs always depicts relationships between men, even the most messy ones, clouds when a woman is introduced into the equation, but intentionally. Agathe is a novelty in the context of the men’s relationship, and that’s reinforced by the filmmaking. Young and caught up in this established artist’s whirlwind, she is often reduced to The Other Woman. She’s always wearing red, always a quiet receptacle to Tomas’ pouty need. When they’re together, Sachs sometimes frames Tomas like a giant baby—especially in a particularly pointed bathtub sequence. Rogowski slumps his shoulders and wheedles while Exarchopoulos is quiet, aiming to please. A fresh blast victim to his love bombs. We realize, through Whishaw’s exhaustion, that Martin knows to duck and cover, even if he’s not great at it. Both face an entanglement with the same idiot, but gender roles, experience and age all contribute to how they deal with him.

All three performers are impeccable. Whishaw is a miserable waif, worn down by his husband’s bullshit. Exarchopoulos’ eggshell-walking softness finally hardens after a series of callous-building frictions. And Rogowski torments them both, striking the only balance between jealous, selfish and winningly boyish that could possibly make us believe that anyone would want to stay around him. Sachs loves to film Rogowski like a bull in a china shop; as he storms into an apartment’s fragile morning wearing last night’s party clothes, you can smell his boozy-stale sweat clashing with the smell of fresh coffee. When he argues with Martin or Agathe, his first move is to shut them up with a kiss until they capitulate. He’s the worst. The sexual chemistry between the three—hot, loaded and sitting out in the open with the safety off—is a testament to their individual performances selling the incompatible yet undeniable pull underlying the drama.

And there’s plenty of sex in Passages. Steamy as it is, no encounter is without baggage. Whether it’s the politics of bottoming, the heady irrationality of an affair’s first days or the sheer exploitation of physical affection for ulterior motives, subtext plays in the background of every hook-up. Agathe’s banging with her boots on. Tomas’ grasping, squeezing hands hunt beneath underwear. Faces are obscured in favor of thrusting ass and raised legs. It’s dehumanizing in the moment because we know how bad these relationships are for the people involved.

Sachs feeds our libidos and our minds by letting the explicit, naturalistic moments play out at length. We’ve got all the time in the world to think about how stupid—how gullible—Martin is for giving in and railing Tomas, how their established dynamic is tinged in sadness. We mull over how dirty Tomas is doing Agathe, how their biologies contribute to physical consequences, like pregnancy, that the fly-by-night Tomas has never experienced. These sexual punctuations serve to divide and illuminate, and to reinforce our own worries.

The larger-scale shifts in power are just as sharply written as the detailed dialogue. Martin takes a lover; Tomas contributes to Martin losing that lover. Agathe and Martin are browbeaten into coming to the same vacation with Tomas, where their isolated hurt is misdirected towards each other—blindly, through a wall’s thin barrier—instead of towards the man putting them through this. Crushing break-up lines are the venom running through the drama’s sharp fangs: Martin and Tomas’ relationship is described as a sickness that neither will survive. The single conversation Martin and Agathe share is brilliantly stark and immediately intimate—bonded by the innate, empathetic kinship between the similarly afflicted. It’s cathartic. Their togetherness, influenced by the cultural and physical details of the straight-passing paradigm Agathe finds herself in, help both find what they need to rebuild the boundaries broken over and over throughout the film.

Passages brilliantly and brusquely blows through the low-key, embarrassing, engrossing questions permeating non-monogamous queerness, encapsulated by the singularly focused story of a taker running rampant over the other people in his life. We’re allowed the dignity of applying the themes ourselves, Sachs subtly nudging us with the details of his brash three-way blow-up. It’s a dark thrill, real enough to open our own old wounds. A bittersweet reckoning deftly illustrated by a duo on opposite ends of a relationship’s chaotic twists and turns, Passages revels in the fallout of fucking around and finding out.

Director: Ira Sachs
Writer: Ira Sachs, Mauricio Zacharias
Starring: Franz Rogowski, Ben Whishaw, Adèle Exarchopoulos
Release Date: January 23, 2023 (Sundance)

Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.

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