Sachs’ Relationship Drama Is Grounded & Effective [Sundance]

Feb 27, 2023

Home Movie Reviews Passages Review: Sachs’ Relationship Drama Is Grounded & Effective [Sundance]

Bolstered by fabulous performances, Passages delicately and intimately explores a love affair that goes awry because of one person’s decisions.

Adèle Exarchopoulos and Franz Rogowski in Passages

Relationships can be complicated. Sometimes, they’re made even more so because one person is so self-involved they don’t seem aware of how their actions affect others. Directed by Ira Sachs, who co-wrote the screenplay with Mauricio Zachariahs, Passages is a taut, understated film about such a relationship. Bolstered by fabulous performances by its lead cast, Passages delicately and intimately explores a love affair that goes awry because of one person’s decisions.

Tomas (Franz Rogowski) is a German director living in France. He’s been married to Martin (No Time to Die’s Ben Whishaw) for a long time, but Tomas decides to begin a love affair with a woman, Agathe (Adèle Exarchopoulos), after wrapping his new film. He wants to talk about it, but Tomas is uninterested in discussing this change, preferring to focus on his own feelings. Tomas and Agathe carry on in their relationship, but Tomas is restless. When it’s revealed Agathe is pregnant, Tomas manipulates the situation in a bid to have both her and Martin in his life, to messy results.

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Passages juxtaposes Tomas’ sense of control. On the set of his film, Tomas knows what he wants and gets it; he’s the boss and his wants are undisputedly fulfilled. Such is not the case in his personal life. Tomas tries to control both Agathe and Martin at various points, positioning himself as the victim in the situation, and manipulating and withholding certain facts to keep them both in his grasp. Tomas is a complex character — he thinks he knows exactly what he wants, but he’s so self-involved that he’s unaware of the ways in which he hurts those he claims to care about.

Sachs’ feature is sharp, handling a love triangle with ease and care. The film is messy because Tomas is all over the place, asserting his feelings as more important than others while simultaneously not knowing what he wants (though he believes he does). The film presents a fascinating duality and explores it in grim, thought-provoking detail. Despite the synopsis, Passages isn’t over-the-top in its relationship drama, nor is the audience asked to necessarily sympathize with the narcissistic Tomas so much as understand the destruction he leaves in his wake — whether he realizes it or not. It’s a subtle, grounded story that is character-driven and emotionally resonant and effective.

Ben Whishaw and Franz Rogowski in Passages

One can’t help but feel sad for Martin and Agathe throughout; they’re stuck in a situation they can’t so easily extricate themselves from emotionally, and yet they must also do what is best for them considering Tomas isn’t thinking about them at all. Passages can be too real sometimes, and it keenly mines its messy relationship drama for all it’s worth. This can lead to a bit of redundancy in terms of Tomas’ behavior, as he’s quick to circle back to the same conversation if it means potentially getting what he wants, but this never deters Passages as a whole. Tomas can be grating as a character, but that is also intentional, and audiences will come to appreciate what happens by the film’s conclusion.

Franz Rogowski is excellent as Tomas, unflinching in his portrayal of a narcissistic man wishing to have control over others. Rogowski’s Tomas is jealous, falling apart, or quick to frustrate when challenged, and the actor leans into these traits with gusto. Ben Whishaw and Adèle Exarchopoulos are equally good in their more limited roles. Whishaw’s Martin is trusting and gentle, while Exarchopoulos’ Agathe is calm and collected. Their one, perhaps most important, scene together says brings the film together nicely and the actors deliver.

Sachs has crafted an intricate, tension-filled drama that doesn’t sugarcoat the disarray of its central love triangle — one that also doesn’t play into certain tropes. The result is a distressing, realistic rendering of a relationship gone awry, and the desperation involved to make things right at the expense and dismissal of others. The film is well-paced and doesn’t drag despite Tomas’ repetitive actions. While occasionally predictable, Passages has quite a few surprises and, more importantly, provides incisive commentary on relationships and the ones who are left to pick themselves up after perceptions, expectations, and trust are completely shattered.

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Passages premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival on January 23. The film is 91 minutes long and is not yet rated. Mubi will release the film later this year.

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