Passages is part of My Summer of Summer Movies, in which I am attempting to see and review every movie that opens (in Chicago) between Memorial Day and Labor Day, 2023. Read all about this ill-advised plan here.
In Ira Sach's Passages (2023), a young director named Tomas (Franz Rogowski) is the psychopathic hypotenuse of an increasingly messy love triangle, and I'd be hard-pressed to name the last time I hated the central character of a film so strongly. (I'm tempted to say it may have been Triumph of the Will, but surely that would be both unfairly associative—both protagonists are German—and irresponsibly hyperbolic.)
So if one measure of a film's success is whether it evokes a strong emotional response, we may consider both Passages and Rogowski's performance to be significant achievements. (I spent my screening of Passages in a sustained and steadily escalating state of anger, and my notes are punctuated with observations far more profane than profound, like "ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME?" and "WHAT AN ASSHOLE!")
It is by other standards of success, however—character development, depth of insight, the presence and value of a point—that my confidence in Sach's film begins to falter. If you're going to ask me to take a journey with a character this toxic and dislikable, after all, I expect there to be rewards that offset the costs of the aggravation. And ultimately—despite a fantastic cast and some considerable strengths—I am not at all sure Passages is worth the fare.
We first meet Tomas on the set of a period-piece film he is directing, which is also entitled Passages. (This note of self-reference on Sach's part—perhaps even of confessional self-awareness?—is intriguing, but we have only this hint to work with.) Our first impression of Tomas is that he is controlling and slightly abusive—yelling at his actors, obsessing angrily over the tiniest gestures of his extras—and he does not improve on longer acquaintance.
It is one of the fascinations of Passages—and occasionally one of its frustrations—that it unfolds with a sink-or-swim immediacy. Like its protagonist, the film lives entirely in the moment, and Sachs spares no time for character back-story, or establishment of situational status quo, before everything is up-ended. Following him to a crowded club, we have barely figured out that the aggressively extroverted Tomas is married to the quieter, more reserved Martin (Ben Whishaw), before Tomas is dancing sensuously with a young woman named Agathe (Adèle Exarchopoulos). Soon, Tomas and Agathe have begun an affair, a development Tomas cheerfully announces to Martin the next morning like it's a wonderful new adventure he's embarked upon. "You could try being happy for me," he suggests to his crestfallen husband. "I love seeing you grow." (Whishaw—invariably wonderful—registers both the callous injury and the childish manipulation in ways that make it clear these are hardly the first he has endured in his marriage.)
Soon, Tomas is moving out of Martin's flat and into Agathe's. (Tiny character moments almost illustrate Tomas's selfish nature more effectively than the larger ones: Watching him pull books off their shared shelves to pack, Martin says "Are you sure that one is yours?" in gently protesting tones that suggest he knows that in this—as in everything—Tomas will just take whatever he wants.) Tomas claims he is in love with Agathe—an assertion she rightly questions—but he won't let Martin move on with his life either. He continues to walk in on the apartment he shared with Martin as if he still has rights to both it and him, even (or especially) after Martin begins a promising new relationship with a kindly writer (Erwan Kepoa Falé). When Agathe becomes pregnant, Tomas defensively insists on his serious long-term intentions to her justifiably distrustful mother (Caroline Chaniolleau)—and then immediately makes a serious play to win Martin back.
So Passages is primarily—and most successfully—a study of an amoral sexual sociopath, one whose chief erotic pleasures seem to lie in repeatedly blowing up not only his own life but the lives of the people he claims to love. And this portrait is undeniably a vivid one: Rogowski's performance is tremendous, making Tomas an explosively mercurial man-child, with a child's naked capacity for selfishness and manipulation. (His creation of this character is aided considerably by Khadija Zeggaï's costuming: Tomas has a penchant for tight mesh crop tops that make him seem simultaneously boyish and sexually menacing, but it's a fabulous snakeskin jacket that best reveals both his venomous nature and his addiction to shedding one life for another.) But, as convincing as this character study is, it's not ultimately a very interesting or illuminating one: Tomas is just another asshole, and movies (and life) are unfortunately replete with studies of those.
The problem is that Tomas is so nakedly reptilian and repellant, we do not for a moment believe anyone would put up with him for even a weekend, let alone repeatedly ruin their lives for him. And the problem is exacerbated by Sachs' expositional aversion throughout: We not only see too little of Tomas's relationships with Martin and Agathe—and certainly little beyond sex that would seem to justify their investment—but we also learn virtually nothing about either of them independent of Tomas. (We do not so much as learn what they do for a living until at least halfway through the film. As it turns out, Martin owns a print studio, while Adele teaches elementary school.) This is, I suspect intentional. We see them, to some extent, the same way Tomas sees them, as toys to be claimed and discarded at his whim: He has little interest in either of them as complete human beings. (It is notable that we see these characters most clearly in a fantastic late scene, the only one they share together without Tomas. Finally, we think, the grown-ups are talking.)
Oddly enough, I made a similar argument about subjectivity earlier this summer, regarding the narratively neglected lovers in Oppenheimer. But Sach's does not stick as closely to the subjective technique as Nolan did in that film, and seeing most of the film through Tomas's perspective creates more problems than it solves in Passages, because Tomas is both more limited and harder to like. Whishaw and Exarchopoulos—both smart, sensitive, deeply internal actors, and faultless here—have to work very hard to compensate for what feel like woefully underwritten characters, and not always successfully. Agathe, in particular, doesn't come into any focus until very late in the film. Whishaw gets a little more to work with, including surprising choices that eventually suggest Martin is not as different from Tomas as he likes to pretend. (There is a fascinating late-film turn I won't discuss, but which speaks to subtle class and misogyny issues I'd have liked to have seen explored more fully.)
So there are many intriguing things happening in Passages, but the infuriating riddle of Tomas is one the film never really solves, one to which—absent any other evidence—the only available answer is sex. We are charged to believe that Tomas's irresistible allure for these two otherwise sane people is entirely chemical. This is in itself an interesting idea to explore—few of us would deny that sexual chemistry can account for a lot of bad decisions and bad relationships—but it is not, ultimately, a satisfying or rewarding one in Passages.
There's been a lot of online blather recently about sex scenes in movies, with a weirdly prudish pushback-contingent claiming they are never necessary. Personally, I think sex is a largely under-explored area in cinema, a powerful but strangely underutilized device for character and relationship revelation. Having heard the buzz around Passages, I had high hopes for substantive sex scenes here, but having watched the film they feel like part of Sach's problem when they should have been all of his solution.
We see a fair number of sex scenes in the film—shot in long, unbroken, admirably realistic takes—and there is convincing heat and sensuality to them. (The MPAA—in yet another example of the their well-established homophobia—gave the film an NC-17 rating, which the producers rightly rejected. It was released in the States unrated.) But there is precious little feeling to these scenes, and even less dialogue or character revelation. (Only the last scene between Tomas and Martin seems to tell us anything about the dynamics of their relationship we might not have already known.) If Sachs wants us to understand that these otherwise inexplicable connections exist primarily in bed, we should see those relationships there—and we don't, really. Despite their heat, these scenes are interludes, not integral, and certainly not illuminating. Perhaps if Sachs had shown more interest in Agathe and Martin's perspective, we might have learned something about human nature, about the destructive allure of both sex and of a sexually amoral creature like Tomas. Here, however, I came away understanding that Tomas might be a good fuck, but none the wiser as to why anyone would ever let him fuck up their life.