Ira Sachs’ Queer Melodrama Passages is a Savage and Stunning Work About Careless People

Passages screens at the Melbourne International Film Festival on August 5 and 18.

Ira Sachs’ Paris set queer melodrama evokes the work of Xavier Dolan, queer people can be imperfect and self-obsessed. They don’t need to be paragons of virtue to be represented. Tomas (Franz Rogowski) is an unabashed narcissist who puppets people around him with reckless abandon. He’s a director and falls prey to petty jealousy but also attempts to weaponize jealousy to his own advantage. When his husband, Martin (Ben Whishaw) wants to go home early after the wrap party for his new film (titled ‘Passages’) he catches the eye of Agathe (Adèle Exarchopoulos) which leads to a whirlwind affair and a love triangle that is messy and ugly in all its permeations.

Tomas’ modus operandi is pushing the boundaries of control by withholding or giving affection but demanding it from all he encounters. When he has sex with Agathe he at first lies to Martin about his whereabouts but then can’t help but proclaim that he had sex with a woman and how wonderful it made him feel. Martin wears this admission with the exhaustion of one who has heard such confessions before perhaps too many times to count. He knows his husband is fickle and feckless. Theo turns away from him in bed at their country holiday home but later says to him, “Can you really say you’re in love with me? Maybe we should take more risks” as a way to turn the blame for the cracks in the relationship in Martin’s direction.

Soon Agathe and Tomas’ relationship becomes serious and Tomas leaves Martin for her. Agathe, unlike Martin and Tomas, is not an artist but a teacher. She’s grounded and intelligent but madly seduced by Tomas’ reliance on her and their intense chemistry. When he looks at her and says, “I’m so happy,” he is handing her the power over his emotional state in the most disingenuous manner. Tomas’ happiness is always someone else’s responsibility, just as he perceives his pain and failures to be.

Martin begins an affair with an author and literary editor, Amad (Erwan Kepoa Falé) who Tomas childishly called a prick when he met him. Amad’s success rankles Tomas, as too his charm and beauty. When the spotlight is off Tomas, he doesn’t quite know what to do with himself. Despite having broken off his marriage with Martin, when he finds out that Martin is moving on, he insinuates himself back into his life as often as he can. For Tomas riding through the streets of Paris on his bicycle and turning up wherever and whenever he wants is his right. He knows he has a mesmeric effect on people when he radiates his raw sexual power, and he thinks that through persistence he can get what he wants.

Tomas is playing a dangerous, careless game. Agathe becomes pregnant and the first person he tells is Martin after having seduced him once more. He knows Martin wants to be a father and with Agathe being pregnant he dangles the possibility of a child in front of Martin like bait. Tomas flits between Agathe and Martin leading Martin to break off his relationship with Amad who warns it will be messy and he is sorry for them.

Messy it is. Agathe naïvely expected Tomas to remain faithful to her, which considering that she started an affair with a married man speaks to her own complicity in the triangle. Negotiating modern and polyamorous relationships is not simple, especially if only one person really wants to be the one who is free to move between people’s lives. One moment he is living with Agathe and fighting with her parents over whether he will be around for his child, the next he is back with Martin. Sachs presents a quandary that is almost a contemporary F. Scott Fitzgerald drama. Careless people abound.

Sachs creates a film of consistent seduction – its raw portrayal of sex and irresistible desire is echoed through almost every movement Franz Rogowski makes. Tomas is coded as unapologetically queer – all crop tops and gyration. The camera adores him. The camera also loves Adèle Exarchopoulos and her earthy sensuality. Surprisingly, Ben Whishaw is a robust erotic presence. These are stunning people all on a crash course to self-realisation. Josée Deshaies’ cinematography captures the Parisian verve of the film – a place where night is illuminated and pulsates with energy – a place where love is often complicated, and hearts are broken a million times. The camera captures the lust for love that Tomas chases, as well as portraying openly what lust is.

Passages is glorious and brutal. A merging of three people who cannot be called innocent in any manner. Tomas is the narcissist at the centre of the triangle, but Agathe and Martin both walked willingly towards him and enabled his behaviour. They both had something to gain, and when they found out that they weren’t going to get what they wanted they must face their connivance. Destruction of others and self-obliteration walk hand in hand.

Franz Rogowski is fast becoming an essential face in European cinema and with good reason. From his work in Christian Petzold’s Transit and Undine, Sebastian Meise’s The Great Freedom, Terrence Malik’s A Hidden Life, and Sebastian Schipper’s Victoria showcasing his immense talent and range. Ben Whishaw is a screen veteran and is undeniably one of the most versatile British actors of his generation (after all, he’s also the voice of Paddington). Adèle Exarchopoulos sits alongside her previous co-stars Virginie Efira, Laure Calamy, and Léa Seydoux as an undeniable presence in French cinema. Passages uses the actors’ talents to their utmost.

Sachs, an American in Paris, crafts a clever and vicious film about young artistic elites and dilettantes. Passages is as much about the temperament of the artist as it is about the sexual and interpersonal mores. Resentment bubbles under Tomas’ surface constantly and his need for validation from others is in every aspect of his life. Perhaps artists need to be somewhat self-involved to succeed, but Sachs presents Tomas’ “sensitivity” as vanity and his selfishness as casual cruelty. The final musical cue of an off-key Jazz version of ‘La Marseillaise’ playing over Tomas as he rides through Paris is a magnificent touch and the perfect coda to Sachs’ scathing vision.

Director: Ira Sachs

Cast: Franz Rogowski, Ben Wishaw, Adèle Exarchopoulos

Writers: Mauricio Zacharias, Ira Sachs, with additional dialogue by Arlette Langmann

Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

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