Sundance 2023 review: Passages (Ira Sachs)

Passages is a lean and graceful film; each sequence has an admirable clarity of purpose and is constructed with a sense of narrative economy.”

One of the most striking aspects of Passages, the perceptive and beautifully restrained new film by Ira Sachs, is the complete honesty of its characters when they are first confronted with unexpected emotional turmoil. Paris-based German filmmaker Tomas (Franz Rogowski) meets a young woman named Agathe (Adèle Exarchopoulos) at a party and spends the night with her despite being married to another man. But there are no secrets in this scenario; the first thing Tomas does the following morning is to return to his husband Martin (Ben Whishaw) and reveal his affair to him. As painful as this revelation may be, Sachs avoids using it for melodramatic effect. Infidelity is never hidden; the film is not interested in building tension around whether Martin will find out about the affair. Tomas’s confession is remarkably candid, and so is Martin’s response. Even when the two men lie to each other (such as when Tomas tells Martin that he is returning to his editing studio at night only to visit Agathe again), both of them know who is lying and are aware that the lie in question is more of a courtesy than a deception. In his finest work to date, which marks his return to Sundance after premiering his last film Frankie (2019) at Cannes, Sachs maintains this distinctive truthfulness as the characters struggle to deal with confusion, indecisiveness, and regret. This is a film of extraordinary emotional lucidity despite the all-too-human complexity of the feelings at its core.

Before long, Tomas moves out of the apartment he shares with Martin and starts living with Agathe. Like all other sentiments in the film, his love for her is genuine; Sachs conveys his excitement, joy and affection in tactile, sensual scenes. But he is equally honest when he is unable to leave Martin for good; his jealousy, desire, and longing for him are captured in minute details (such as small changes in his posture, a brief visit to his old apartment, or a book he tries to read). If this love triangle does not seem particularly novel at first glance, the veracity of the emotional back-and-forth certainly puts a refreshing spin on it. Yet Tomas’s sincerity does not make the situation any less hurtful for Agathe or Martin. One of the central themes in Passages is selfishness (how Tomas hurts the people around him while pursuing his own desires). Crucially, however, Passages refuses to antagonize Tomas for his self-centred behaviour and allows him to not do the “right” thing for himself or others. With Tomas inflicting pain on Agathe and Martin because of (and not despite) his deep love for them, the film suggests, perhaps, that confusion and selfishness are inherent parts of love.

Passages begins on the set of Tomas’s new film, where an actor is struggling to understand what he should do with his hands in a seemingly simple shot. Tomas asks him to try different postures (moving his arms, or probably not, or maybe walking with his hands in pockets?) before finally demonstrating an intuitive-yet-precise way of moving through the scene himself. This opening sequence quickly establishes many key elements: Sachs’s filmmaking is magnificently corporeal, with the camera closely attuned to every gesture, glance, or motion – a quality that is effectively mirrored in Tomas’s focus on the bodies occupying the scene he is shooting. Furthermore, he is depicted as an impulsive, somewhat impatient presence on the set, which proves to be a trait that foreshadows the instinctive (or even inconsiderate) choices he makes later on.

Passages is a lean and graceful film; each sequence has an admirable clarity of purpose and is constructed with a sense of narrative economy. Pivotal moments or deeply evocative experiences are portrayed in spare and elegant scenes. Consider, for example, a quietly agonizing moment late in the film when Agathe overhears Tomas and Martin in an adjacent room and makes a difficult choice about her place in this equation. When Tomas returns to Agathe’s room later that night, no words are required to convey the profound sadness that all three characters are feeling. Likewise, a short but moving exchange is sufficient when Agathe and Martin finally meet without Tomas and end up discussing perhaps the only topic about which he has failed to be completely honest.

All three actors are simply outstanding in roles that demand great physicality and emotional range. Franz Rogowski, who effortlessly alternates between a cruel flamboyance reminiscent of Rainer Werner Fassbinder and a poignant vulnerability that helps us understand Tomas as a complex person, adds another memorable character to his impressive resume. His performance anchors Sachs’s masterful film from its lively opening scenes to its introspective conclusion. Passages ends on a lovely note that feels vibrant and hushed at once. The final image is full of possibility, but also wisdom, and one can certainly say the same for this exquisite film.