For Franz Rogowski’s Tomas, the spoiled, petulant, fragile soul that tears through Ira Sachs’ Passages, it is not enough to simply adore and be adored. For him, love must be cataclysmic.
He is a German director married to Martin (Ben Whishaw), an English printmaker. They’ve carved out a pleasantly bourgeois life for themselves in Paris. At the wrap party for Tomas’s latest film, some starchy period piece also called Passages, Martin declines to dance with his husband. Tomas instead takes to the dance floor with Agathe (Adèle Exarchopoulos), a French schoolteacher with a beautiful face and a bright, inquisitive nature. She takes him back to hers. They have sex.
The next day, Tomas bounds home and says to Martin: “I had sex with a woman. Can I tell you about it?” His husband’s reaction is subdued, almost invisible, but it seems clear this is not an arrangement he has enthusiastically agreed to. “This always happens when you finish a film,” he retorts. “You just forget.”
Sachs, who has made a string of relationship dramas (Love Is Strange, Keep the Lights On) that are humane but blunt about the improbability of love, skips past any explanation of the nature of their relationship. We’re all human – it’s not so hard to imagine the circumstances under which a married man may seek pleasure elsewhere.
Is Tomas a monster? A fool? A naïf? The answer may depend on exactly how many Tomases the viewers themselves have encountered over the years. But Sachs knows how to draw an audience right into the centre of this man’s orbit, and it’s thanks largely to the wonders of Rogowski’s face – those big, fawn eyes and the impish curl to his smile. He makes Tomas look so vulnerable in certain moments, craving a love no one can fulfil, that it’s hard not to carve out at least an ounce of sympathy for him.
That said, the film’s most gut-wrenching scenes belong to Agathe, played with acuity by Exarchopoulos. Her tragedy is knowing exactly what she’s buying into. When Tomas declares his love for her, she responds: “You say it when it works for you.”
At times, Josée Deshaies’s cinematography borders on the austere – this trio’s life is colourful, but sparse. And the film’s highly publicised (but not all that graphic) sex scenes, which have led to a questionable 18 rating by the BBFC, are passionate but not necessarily intimate. Sachs is deliberate about where the camera sits, about whose pleasure it captures, and what that says about the power, assurance, or desirability these people actually seek through sex. Passages is smart and precise about other people’s messes. It’s a way to indulge in the most volatile parts of ourselves without ever feeling like we’re about to lose control.
Dir: Ira Sachs. Starring: Franz Rogowski, Ben Whishaw, Adèle Exarchopoulos, Erwan Kepoa Falé, Olivier Rabourdin, Caroline Chaniolleau. 12, 92 minutes
‘Passages’ is in cinemas from 1 September