Ira Sachs’ latest film has lit up both Sundance and the Berlin International Film Festival already, and deservedly so. A sensual, dramatic, and compellingly performed drama, Passages is a film centred on irrational, impassioned desire in the face of logic and satisfaction. It is quietly devastating and tinged with regret, and yet for this very reason captures the realities and complexities of attraction better than practically any other film of recent times.
Tomas (Franz Rogowski) is a polysexual filmmaker living in Paris married to Martin (Ben Wishaw), who works as a printer. At a party after filming has wrapped on Tomas’ latest film, he sleeps with his friend Agathe (Adèle Exarchopoulos), a school teacher, and confesses his actions to Martin the following morning. What follows is a story of three people with conflicting desires and priorities all becoming entangled with one another, all making mistakes and eventually all ending up far from where they found themselves in the beginning.
A common line of argument is that modern movies are too often sexless. Whether you believe it or not, Passages highlights just what sex scenes, when done right, can bring to a movie for both its characters and the audience. The gaze here scarcely focuses on Agathe’s body (at Exarchopoulos’ request), and instead the male body becomes the primary focus. Accordingly, Tomas’ relationship with Martin feels like the more primal, desire-driven dynamic compared to that he has with Agathe, even if Agathe actually makes him happier. The male body is the subject of desire, and Sachs uses such scenes with a balanced mixture of tastefulness and allure to deepen the characters at the heart of the film.
Even without the sex scenes, Passages is an erotic film if there ever was one. Glances, looks, and movements are charged with chemistry and longing. Dances are at times choreographed perfectly to music, sweeping you away with Tomas in particular as he becomes increasingly lost in fleeting moments of pleasure. Attraction charges through scenes, sometimes building slowly and at others arriving at barely a moment’s notice. It makes Passages a thrilling experience, wrong footing you with an apparently never ending spiral of questionable decisions and twists.
The three leads all excel in bringing Passages to life. Rogowski is a marvel, with a volatility, style, and above all else embittered love that is brought out in every scene. Wishaw however, in what feels like one of his most natural performances in years, convinces you that just because Martin is more reserved doesn’t mean he feels any less intensely. How their relationship transforms and reforms throughout is made all the more transfixing by their performances. Exarchopoulos meanwhile thrives in her role as Agathe. Assertive and stirring, she blends joy and heartbreak in breathtaking fashion, always managing to highlight her connection to Tomas while consistently dropping clues that their relationship is not all that it seems.
You could well argue that, with Passages, sexy cinema is back and is hotter than hell. That would be a somewhat crude summary however of a delicately, beautifully, and grippingly realised drama that uses sex in a refreshingly new way. It is not visual fodder, but used to encourage tragedy and ecstasy in equal measure. It is a film that captures the hot mess of human relationships and longing, eliciting both your pity and your judgment as it goes along. With a phenomenal script and the ability to make your heart sink or sing in mere seconds, Passages is a stunner.
Passages was screened as part of the 2023 Edinburgh International Film Festival, and is released in cinemas on 1st September.