Franz Rogowski, Adèle Exarchopoulos Star In An Irresistible Love Triangle [Sundance]

Feb 9, 2023

Ira Sachs prefers relationships of the doomed variety — tempestuous passions torn asunder, sometimes by external forces like capitalism, which complicated the search for a home through New York’s cutthroat real estate market in “Love Is Strange” and “Little Men.” His latest film — the sexy, frustrating, loose-yet-compact, altogether irresistible three-hander “Passages” — also concerns property contracts and a homeless protagonist. However, this one’s got nobody but himself to blame for that predicament, fluent as he is in the same toxic strain of amour fou that previously perfumed the air in “Keep the Lights On” and especially Sachs’ debut, “The Delta.” As in that film — also pitched at the admirably humble quotidian scale Sachs hasn’t felt the need to exceed in more than a quarter decade — “Passages” follows a bisexual chaos agent so wrapped up in his own narcissism that he can’t see where his self-exploration ends and insensitivity to those around him begins. He ping-pongs between two lovers he has his reasons for using and who have their reasons for letting him back in until the inevitable happens, and he’s left looking for a place to lay his head.
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Here is a commonplace lust triangle one could imagine hearing a friend gripe about — so familiar that it recalls three or four different plotlines on TV’s “Girls,” but enriched with soup-to-nuts excellence across every department. Adroit casting, writing, editing, performing and costuming shade the outline of an affair to a finely sharpened emotional realism, the cycles of fighting and reconciling we’ve all seen before regaining in rawness as if we’re now the ones living through it.
Filmmaker Tomas (Franz Rogowski, a flamboyant fuckboy in sheer crop tops and mesh tanks) is introduced berating an actor for his inability to walk down some stairs in just the right way, while the real issue is that Tomas doesn’t know what he wants until he lands on hands-in-pockets. He’s about to enter a domestic drama of his own with two scene partners less amenable to his domineering direction: Martin (Ben Whishaw, cozy in cable-knit cardigans and loose-fitting button-downs), the husband who’d rather head home to their Parisian flat from the shoot’s afterparty than dance with Tomas, and Agathe (Adèle Exarchopoulos, her blouses flattering in a sensible way), the woman he invites onto the floor instead. Because they feel an immediate animal attraction to one another in a few languid long takes — helped along by being two of the European film industry’s most gratuitously beautiful actors, of course — he goes home with her.
The ensuing series of hookups and breakups plays out just how a viewer experienced in the ways of romantic dysfunction would assume, the brilliance contained in the grace notes elucidating details of each character. When Tomas turns up at home the next morning and informs his husband of his infidelity, Martin continues making tea and tells him they’ll discuss it later. Each time Tomas barges back into the apartment where he’s no longer welcome, he aggressively makes himself comfortable both as a show of entitlement and a test of the limits set for him. The film joins Agathe just as she’s disposing of a casual fling turned clingy, suggesting a series of transient dalliances from someone still formulating an image of herself. Aside from the classic id-ego-superego makeup, the abrasive dynamic between Tomas, Agathe, and Martin also suggests an American’s view of archetypal intra-European tensions: the bratty German club kid, the sensual and existentially searching French mademoiselle, the Briton polite to the point of repression.
From a spectator’s distance, it’s plenty clear that the two well-meaning souls caught in Tomas’ riptide of carelessness should simply stop allowing this evil hottie to repeatedly ruin their lives. But Sachs offers a rationale by drawing out the intimacy between people using sex to forestall their problems. Tomas, Martin, and the sensitive novelist (Erwan Kepoa Falé) with whom he rebounds treat one another with a gentle force seldom calibrated so tenderly, their fluid physicality observed from the respectfully engaged distance of a welcome voyeur sitting in the corner. Aside from the matter-of-fact glimpses of male frontal (and orificial!) nudity, a marked disinterest in the particulars of Agathe’s body betrays the authorship of a gay man; her comparative lack of overall depth hints that, to some extent, Sachs may share in Tomas’ eventual view of the hetero lifestyle as stifling and drab.
That antsiness isn’t unique to men with women, however. Tomas bristles whenever he senses he’s approaching the stable stasis that a self-styled tormented artiste fears as creative death. As a carnally carnivorous shark, he’s also every bit as dependent on constant motion for survival, an immature psychological fidget that sends him peddling his bicycle around the arrondissements photographed with affection and attention by Josée Deshaies. In keeping with his apparent prevailing belief that people are helplessly and unavoidably the way they are, Sachs doesn’t bother with explanations for Tomas’ self-destructive pathology. As he games out incompatibilities to their logical conclusions, he renders the variables in an imbalanced equation willful, messy, and, finally, human. With remarkable yet finite empathy, he disassembles a star-crossed trio’s desires, challenging his creations to grow wiser and stronger for it. They don’t all possess the perspective to see how heartbreak can be a productive, vulcanizing proposition, but by the last gasp of their extinguished flame, we do. [A-]
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