The Sex in ‘Passages’ Is as Raw and Passionate as Its Emotions
“I had sex with a woman last night,” says Tomas (Franz Rogowski) to his partner, Martin (Ben Whishaw). “Can I tell you about it?” This is a place they’ve been before. Martin says that it happens whenever Tomas, a filmmaker, finishes a movie. And this is fine. It is what it is. All of the fights they’ve had to this point, all of the fights that they’re about to have, both because of this transgression and because of the others that are promised to come — all of it, one senses, is just another spoke in the whirling cycle of Tomas and Martin’s relationship. It is a partnership that is spinning in place. Neither man is entirely happy. They each have their reasons. Some of those reasons hinge on self-discovery and the natural desire to wander, limning the edges of good sense in pursuit of questions that neither man seems to have articulated to himself. Others speak to an overwhelming need for intimacy, the kind that can make you melt into a shrunken echo of a person when it’s been stripped from you, the kind that might push you into the arms of other partners, new and old, despite the hurt this is sure to cause.
Ira Sachs’s Passages is a film about two longtime partners in France: the impulsive, sensitive, passionate, fickle Tomas, and the sensible, dependable Martin. And it is about the woman in question, Agathe (Adèle Exarchopoulos), whom Tomas meets while finishing up his latest film. The long and short of it is that Tomas and Agathe have sex and it becomes a thing. Tomas leaves Martin for Agathe and Martin starts to see someone else, a writer named Ahmad (Erwan Kepoa Falé), with whom things can only get so serious. Agathe gets pregnant with Tomas’s child. But Tomas still feels the pull of Martin. He will, after being introduced to the still patently heterosexual rituals of meeting Agathe’s parents and being tasked with planning out a future for their nuclear family, wind up crying to Martin that he misses being with a man. And Martin is compelled by this for a while. Until.
None of this is really giving the full breadth of the movie away, because none of it is really meant to surprise us. The actors, working from a script by Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias, and swept up in Sachs’s characteristically perceptive, subtle dramatic style, make the whims and wills of these people feel consistent and predictable, which is to say, true to life. They are flawed, hungry animals let loose in a film that will commit to allowing them — Tomas, in particular — to be who they are, even as this choice will inevitably bend toward hurt. We already know from the start that Tomas will be a handful, an easily-wounded artist-type whose strong will and assertive personality cannot entirely mask the gleaming neediness hiding just beneath. And we can already see how Martin and Agathe, who are also both sensitive, are so easily pulled in by this. Whatever happens as the film proceeds, it’s as if Martin and Agathe can both see it coming from the outset. Tomas leaves Martin to move in with Agathe, and as he’s trudging his belongings into her apartment, she asks, “Are you going to stay for a long time?” As opposed, she says, to merely using her to store his things. She knows he’s got a transient heart. Just as Martin somehow knows to protect himself from overly investing in his own new romance — one that he’s able to cut off, when the time comes, with an almost brutal ease. Sachs needn’t even overly explore that romance onscreen to give Whishaw enough space to indicate Martin’s almost fatalistic guardedness. He behaves like a man who knows that Tomas will be back, and of course he is painfully right about that.
Part of the premise of Passages is that there is emotional attraction, and then there is physical attraction, and as much as we might want to force these desires into alignment, satisfying them in a stable relationship with one person, desire is too prone to mess with that. Attraction is already prone to wavering. By making a man like Tomas the axis of such an exploration, Sachs only heightens the problem, giving Passages an unruly energy at its center that defies what might, to some eyes, look like a more straightforward, well-made French romantic drama. As such a drama, Passage more than satisfies. Sachs’s visual sense is subtle but rhythmic and essential. He has a way of weaving intimacy through careful patterns — multiple breakup scenes, for example, or repeated shots of beds and bedrooms that catch these environs from the same side angle each time, encouraging us to notice the decorative barrenness and inviting emptiness of each bed, on the one hand, while allowing us to anticipate the live-wire emotions that will fill this space, on the other.
Rogowski, ever unpredictable, renders Tomas into a man who simply cannot be still — not within the space of a scene, nor within the broader reaches of his life. He furiously pedals away on his bike, soars into rooms (often late for the occasion), sits down to a meal with Agathe’s parents like a wound-up coil that’s already promising to explode before things even necessarily get awkward (which they do). You can measure the distance between Tomas and Martin in one wonderfully sculpted pair of back-to-back scenes in which both men are first introduced to Ahmad for the first time. Each displays curiosity about Ahmad’s career as a writer, about which he seems somewhat indecisive. But Martin probes him gently, with curiosity. And Tomas is more of a battering ram. Interrogative. You can feel Ahmad growing defensive. Perhaps you can even feel Tomas’s awareness of Martin’s attraction to Ahmad. What emerges, most of all, is Tomas’s impulsiveness. He is always on the offense. Even the way he dresses, with a femme, artistic adventurousness (that does not always amount to stylishness, exactly), feels like a preliminary snake rattle, a challenge to either take him as he is or not at all. (In the case of Agathe’s parents, the choice, upon witnessing this slim man with his brusque gestures, exposed belly, and loudly patterned trousers, is definitely: not at all.)
What makes Passages worth watching isn’t the bare facts of its plot, but the ways that Sachs’s careful, nearly invisible style, matched to his actors, generates all manner of sudden, fluid, intelligent sensations as we watch. This is a better movie about Tomas and Martin’s difficult love than it is at unpeeling the delicate emotional attraction between Tomas and Agathe. Its more immediate interest seems to be in making us notice the way that Tomas ping-pongs between the two, not without love, but not entirely with care. On the subject of sex, however, Sachs is admirably forward in each case. Again, there is a pattern. Passages gives us a healthy pair of long scenes of Tomas’s lovemaking with each of his partners, each sequence minimally edited, comprised of long, agile shots that trace the couples’ bodies in motion, from inception to climax — one in which Tomas’s back is to us as he dominates the frame, and the other in which his body is visually subsumed beneath Martin’s.
Sachs is well-regarded for his hand with realistic sexual intimacy. His sex scenes in Passages are that rare mix of dramatic and erotic, full of enough particular, fully-imagined bits of behavior that we believe in the intimacy and vulnerability of each pairing, and even start to sense the psychology behind it all. Someone is sure to make something of Tomas being a top in one scene and a bottom in the other, because it seems pointed, whether or not it’s meant to be, as if it’s saying something about his emotional role within each of these couples — a normative assumption, clearly, but a leaning-in to symbolism that these small differences between the scenes nevertheless inspire. Only, Sachs’ sex scenes are never reductively symbolic. They are filled with pleasure and, more pressingly, genuine knowingness, the kind that only long-term partners can share. Yet we never forget the immediacy of the sex as sex, never mistake it for sex being wielded purely for its dramatic import. Even when it’s awkward; even when we’re not even sure that the sex is good. Just as we are not always sure that these love affairs are “good” — that would be too simple. Passages has little interest in such simplicity. It is radiant with wonder over these people and is, perhaps as a result, almost helpless. It ends with knowledge, not neat resolution. These people finally understand something of themselves. The movie knows that its job is not to change them.