The romantic disruption Ira Sachs unleashes in PASSAGES is quietly captivating, in no small part due to the superb central performance of Franz Rogowski as Tomas. The film captures the exhilarating highs and lows of new and broken romances, and Rogowski embodies the alluring vibrancy that can come with the heedlessly narcissistic.
Tomas is a film director in Paris, married to Brit Martin (Ben Whishaw). Upon finishing his latest film – which we see him direct with intense creative investment in the opening scene – he connects with Agathe (Adèle Exarchopoulos), dancing with her following Martin’s tired rejection. Although Tomas admits his subsequent sexual encounter with her to a weary Martin – who writes it off as a flash in the pan from heightened post-shoot emotions – he continues his affair with Agathe, straining all their feelings and lives.
It feels more significant than a simple meta wink that the clapperboard for Tomas’s film at the opening bears the same production company and title as PASSAGES. The German Tomas is not necessarily in any way autobiographical for American Sachs (though that is a reasonable suspicion when filmmakers centre their films on other filmmakers). Still, his character is the film’s engine and the fuel for its drama and conflicts. Tomas is the pivot around which the film revolves its plot and character interactions. His emotional and sexual openness reflects Tomas’s commitment to art and new experiences, but it creates difficulty for all those around him. The character of Tomas embodies the film PASSAGES – uncomfortable and challenging but exhilarating and captivating.
“…emotional and sexual openness reflects Tomas’s commitment to art and new experiences, but it creates difficulty for all those around him. The character of Tomas embodies the film PASSAGES – uncomfortable and challenging but exhilarating and captivating.”
The three leading performers pitch their emotions perfectly. Rogowski’s Tomas is confident and unfiltered; a man that demands attention and seems to receive it effortlessly. Whishaw is a typically more reserved display, but his weariness in response to Tomas’s behaviour plays beautifully against the unsuspecting Agathe and turbulent Tomas. Whishaw’s performance is more exuberant in the sex scenes between the two men, where the animalistic impulses driving Tomas are shown with great chemistry. The same can be said of the very differently shot ones with Agathe; the length of shots, framing, and tone of both all contrast, but the same impulses are displayed. Sex is the catalyst in PASSAGES, but the reactions between characters are the film’s heat. If anyone doesn’t benefit as much from the script’s intricate arrangement of character dynamics, it is Exarchopoulos’s Agathe. The most unprepared of this tumultuous triangle is perhaps positioned too passively for the arc her character finally takes. In comparison, the extra interactions – such as his own affair – afforded to Whishaw’s Martin round him out in a way Agathe is not afforded.
“What matters to Tomas is primarily Tomas, a whirlwind of impulses seeking his next passage to pleasure. When one is shut off or seems unappealing, he will even return to previously burnt bridges like an arsonist with a bucket of water.”
Sachs’s camerawork serves to heighten our impression of Tomas. He is usually centre-frame, with Martin or Agathe frequently out of frame or obscured. When Agathe models a dress, she starts out of the shot entirely, and when he brings her to orgasm in another, her face is obscured. When Tomas self-centredly tries to explain his pleasure from his first encounter with Agathe to Martin, Sachs frames Martin entirely behind Tomas (something repeated in a later scene). What matters to Tomas is primarily Tomas, a whirlwind of impulses seeking his next passage to pleasure. When one is shut off or seems unappealing, he will even return to previously burnt bridges like an arsonist with a bucket of water.
The final scene is heart-pounding in its simplicity, the build of emotions and passion too much for even the whirlwind of uninhibited freedom that is Tomas, as we slowly pull in on his face during one of his many bike rides. Where he goes next is unclear, but this particular passage of these characters’ lives is arresting.