Three’s Company – Film Review: Passages ★★★★

Ira Sachs’ films tend to examine the complexities of adult relationships using a quiet, dry naturalistic tone which has often reminded me of the style of French New Wave cinema. So it feels fitting that his latest, Passages, his fifth collaboration with writing partner Mauricio Zacharias, would have Paris as its background. Featuring three stellar lead performances, this prickly, difficult film challenged me in ways his other films have not, raising his game as a visual storyteller, and joining the ranks as one of the finest films of 2023 so far.

Frank Rogowski and Ben Wishaw in Passages. Courtesy of MUBI.

When we first encounter Tomas (Franz Rogowski), a wiry, short-fused filmmaker, he’s finishing directing his latest movie, obsessing over how a character enters the set. His attention to detail and need for control clearly annoys those around him, but his stature allows him that privilege. Later, at the wrap party, he can’t get his husband Martin (Ben Wishaw), a graphic designer, to dance with him, but a gorgeous young school teacher, Agathe (Adèle Exarchopoulos from Blue Is The Warmest Colour) overhears their conversation and dances with Tomas instead. They have an instant connection, with Tomas following her home, spending the night and surprisingly finding himself falling in love with her. When Tomas returns to Martin the following day to discuss his feelings, the complications set in motion a story of sexual fluidity, relationship boundaries, and how the ever-shifting needs of an individual can impact the lives of those closest to them.

Franz Rogowski and Adèle Exarchopoulos in Passages. Courtesy of MUBI.

On the surface, one could easily dismiss Tomas as a pleasure-seeking narcissist who, like a tornado, has the added potential to destroy anything and everyone in his path. This, however, would feel overly simplistic since Tomas so openly communicates with both Martin and Agathe, that his shifting loyalties shouldn’t come as a surprise to either. Sure, his character has his mercurial tendencies and takes being self-involved to new levels, but for most of the film, you always know where he stands. Rogowski, who has given such standout performances in films such as Great Freedom (Große Freiheit) and Transit, is a sexy knockout here. His body language when dancing speaks volumes about his character, and his fearless approach, refusing to be likable, yet who possesses an arrogant charm nonetheless, proves mesmerizing. Audiences may want to boo and hiss at him as the story progresses, and perhaps rightly so, but he’s merely doing what any validation-seeking control freak would do. Love or hate the character, I predict international stardom for Rogowski after this breakout performance.

Ben Wishaw in Passages. Courtesy of MUBI.

The film’s costume designer, Khadija Zeggaï really puts her stamp on this film, putting Rogowski in bold colored sweaters, fishnets, and crop tops, truly making him the memorable object of desire. Exarchopoulos also sports some sexy colors, but in one great, truly uncomfortable scene, in which her character introduces Tomas to her parents, his outfit nearly walks away with the whole movie. When was the last time you talked about a man’s costume in a film? Beetlejuice?

Franz Rogowski in Passages. Courtesy of MUBI.

Although Rogowski gives the flashiest performance, Wishaw, who has steadily impressed with roles in so many indies and big budget studio films alike, has the quieter role here, putting up with Tomas’ mood swings with a patience many wouldn’t abide. For much of the film, he appears coiled, a bit uncertain. Exarchopoulos, on the other hand, exudes a confident sexuality throughout, certain that she can navigate a relationship with a queer man. Both actors hold their own wonderfully opposite Rogowski, providing us with those crucial reasons he’d feel so obsessed with both partners. Moreover, this depiction of polyamory chooses to eschew secrets for the most part and have its characters lay everything out there for each other.

Adèle Exarchopoulos and Ben Wishaw in Passages. Courtesy of MUBI.

One secret, however, does manage to come out late in the film in a truly wrenching scene between Martin and Agathe. Stunningly played by Wishaw and Exarchopoulos, this moment speaks volumes about the burden of toxic relationships. The compositions, the sound of the traffic in the background, all of it seems so simple, but this basic coverage comes together to create a powerful moment. Sachs’ filmmaking as a whole, aided immeasurably by cinematographer Josée Deshaies, has grown in leaps and bounds with Passages. The camera moves only when necessary, yet when it does, such as that final push-in on a main character’s face, it feels inevitable and perfect. Sachs stages scenes so effortlessly that you feel like you’re eavesdropping on real conversations. Often the framing subtly makes you feel slightly ill at ease, as if you have to lean in or crane your neck slightly to see around another character. Sachs, like his main character, seems in control of his viewers, giving us a provocative, slightly off-putting, yet richly rewarding experience.

By Glenn Gaylord, Senior Film Critic

Passages is now playing in select US theaters. Look for it on MUBI later this year.

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