Few directors find their way into unique human conditions like Ira Sachs. He’s made a name for himself over the past decade as a humanist director, and as he explores the complexities of relationships, he finds incredible nuance. Coming off consecutive triumphs, Sachs once again digs into the inner workings of complicated people, allowing Franz Rogowski to craft a frustrating narcissist. Sachs delivers one of the most internal and upsetting relationship drama in recent memory as he works his magic once again.
After a difficult shoot, Tomas (Rogowski) wants to go out dancing. He brings his husband Martin (Ben Whishaw) who leaves early in the night. Tomas begins dancing with Agathe (Adèle Exarchopoulos), and over the course of the night, they sleep together. Tomas tells Martin the following day, choosing to continue his affair while remaining married. Tensions rise when Agathe receives surprising news.
Sachs pushes the characters of Passages to the brink of relational acceptance. Rogowski becomes a tyrant, and Sachs seems to push him as far as this path could allow. Tomas is not only extraordinarily selfish but arrogant about his contributions to the lives of those around him. Sachs colors him with the mind of a sociopath, which explains his behavior as the film unravels. Simply seeking his next moment of passion and sex, Tomas blows through their lives like a tornado.
The performance from Rogowski is marvelous, especially given his past performances. Truly one of the great performers, Rogowski crafts an instantly iconic character. One would be hard-pressed to find commonalities between his characters in Passages and Undine (from 2020). He flips the script, dominating the screen and owning his sexiness as a leading man. He taps into a movie star confidence few can, making it reasonable that these two people would lust after him. It’s the performance of the film, which is saying quite a lot.
Meanwhile, Ben Whishaw delivers his best work in film since The Lobster. He remains as visually curious and fun as an actor, but he brings out the nuance he’s been able to draw out in his television performances over the last few years. Like Rogowski, he owns his sexuality but holds his anger in equal share. While Whishaw continues to deliver subtle performances, his best moments in Passages are among his best on film t
While Exarchopoulos takes on a normally thankless role, she imbues it with a sense of impending doom. She gets the most openly emotional role in Passages, but Sachs makes it even more complicated than one would anticipate. A moment of solitude while she lays on the bed allows her to bring out her full range of emotion. When she wakes the next morning, we know her perspective shifts overnight. It’s a brilliant performance by Exarchopoulos and even better direction by Sachs.
Perhaps the most critical aspect of making Passages work is how Sachs draws out every ounce of sexuality. Among the most sensual films of 2023, Passages does not leave much to the imagination. While the sex scenes are graphic, they also feel like unique connections between two people. This is not lust for lust’s sake.
Instead, Sachs showcases the chemistry between actors. He builds the tension through beautiful shot selection and dreamlike editing. These moments bring the audience closer and closer to the couples, encroaching on their intimacy. There’s never a question of whether or not we’re invading private moments; we have, and their electricity is sparking in every direction. In that sense, Passages becomes Sachs’ most intimate drama to date, quite the feat considering his filmography.
Passages thrive when it examines the broken promises of an intimate relationship. Sachs embeds us so deeply into the relationships between his characters it feels inappropriate. Yet for those within the relationship, the pain and hurt is that much worse. The betrayals on every level begin to erode, and as Sachs shows, once the dam is broken the water simply pours out.