Sundance Review: ‘Passages’

Franz Rogowski, Adèle Exarchopoulos & Ben Whishaw Are In A Chaotic Love Triangle In Ira Sachs' Latest Film

What happens when a fuckboy tries to settle down? Nothing good, and innocent people get caught up in his wake in Ira Sachs’ Passages, about a doomed love triangle that we can’t turn away from. Tomas (Franz Rogowski) is undeniably a prick. A filmmaker, when we first meet him he’s scolding an actor for being unable to walk down a flight of stairs exactly the way he wants to. The bullying is so bad you think the other actors might rebel. But it’s all just a glimpse into the madness that is Tomas. Call it a journey of self-discovery, or just plain old selfishness, but whatever path he’s on ends up being a steamroller to the people around him.

Caught up in Tomas’ wake are his English husband, the soft-spoken Martin (Ben Whishaw), who isn’t interested in the nightly parties (with Tomas inevitably in his tighest crop-top) that follow the movie shoots. He’d much rather be at home enjoying a glass of wine and a book in their Paris flat. One night at one of these parties, Tomas meets the sexy Agathe (Adèle Exarchopoulos), who accepts his invitation to the dance floor that Martin denies. There’s an instant animal attraction between Tomas and Agathe, and he ends up going home with her for a night of wild sex.

And this is who Tomas is; impulsive and thoughtless about who he might hurt. He only cares about what he needs in the moment. What he always needs is attention, to feel desired, and in total control. The next morning he returns home and starts off with a little white lie that Martin doesn’t believe. So Tomas tells him the truth about what happened, and frames it as a good thing because it’s showing his personal growth. “It’s exciting’, he tells Martin, who is clearly hurt but wants to deal with the issue later. Of course, Tomas doesn’t understand how telling his husband that another person, a woman at that, could be emotionally devastating.

This lack of concern extends to Agathe, as well. He bounces to her crib whenever he wants for sex, then comes crawling back home to Martin. The thing about Tomas, besides that he’s a lying, scheming con-man of the heart, is that he always wants to have his cake and eat it, too. Nothing will ever be enough for him. Stability is never in his mind. So of course, he escalates things with Agathe by proposing that he loves her, which leads to a separation with Martin. But when Martin tries to move on to the handsome novelist Amad (Erwan Kepoa Falé), Tomas can’t stand not having the adoration of his ex. His extreme acts of jealousy begin to border on scary: he shows up at their former home unnanounced, coming up with thin reasons to be there. He makes himself comfortable, kicking his feet up as a show of domination, as if planting his flag in marked territory. And this makes things tense with Agathe, as well, the worst of it during a tense lunch with her parents, who are understandably concerned this arrogant, flighty bastard in leopard print pants might not be such a good match for their girl.

While Sachs makes no qualms about portraying Tomas as the dirtbag he is, what keeps Passages feeling real and not like an episode of a bad soap opera, are the characters around him. Exarchopoulos, still stunning as ever and a better actress than she was a decade ago in Blue is the Warmest Colour, delivers a fully-formed portrayal of Agathe. She is no innocent, naive victim in all of this. She goes in willingly, very shortly after a humiliating, public break-up with another man, and sees Tomas for who he is. When the stakes are raised later on, she begins to take stock of what is real and what is her idea of what love should be.

Whishaw’s Martin is so thin and wispy early on that he barely exists. It’s no wonder Tomas thinks that he can use and emotionally abuse this man. But as Tomas’ transgressions get worse, Martin’s spine stiffens. He’s also human and given to weakness, allowing Tomas into his life time and time again to the point where we want to grab him and shake him. This ping-ponging of Tomas into Martin and Agathe’s life does grow tiresome, after a while. It might have been Sachs’ point to show how easily smart, beautiful, and capable people can be repeatedly swayed by a slickster like Tomas, but it feels like procrastination.

This is Rogowski’s film, though, and he is an absolute force of nature. Tomas isn’t the kind of character you like. He’s like someone from a really bad break-up story told by your Tinder date. It’s easy to just despise Tomas for the horrible person he is, but Rogowski does find something buried deep within; a yearning for love an acceptance that will probably never be completely fulfilled. I don’t know if Passsages is the kind of movie you love. I don’t think Sachs makes movies that are quite so simple. But his movies are always complex, devastating, and with the exception of the bloated Frankie, narratively compact. Sachs creates compelling characters, and while Tomas might not be the most complex of them, he’s a car crash you can’t turn away from.

 

REVIEW OVERVIEW
Passages
Travis Hopson has been reviewing movies before he even knew there was such a thing. Having grown up on a combination of bad '80s movies, pro wrestling, comic books, and hip-hop, Travis is uniquely positioned to geek out on just about everything under the sun. A vampire who walks during the day and refuses to sleep, Travis is the co-creator and lead writer for Punch Drunk Critics. He is also a contributor to Good Morning Washington, WBAL Morning News, and WETA Around Town. In the five minutes a day he's not working, Travis is also a voice actor, podcaster, and Twitch gamer. Travis is a voting member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA), Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), and Late Night programmer for the Lakefront Film Festival.