‘Passages’: A messy (and undeniably sexy) look at modern relationships

‘Passages’: A messy (and undeniably sexy) look at modern relationships

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‘Passages’: A messy (and undeniably sexy) look at modern relationships
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A complex tale of passion and lust, Fran Rogowski stars as the central character Tomas – a self-involved narcissist auteur who throws his marriage into crisis when he begins an affair with a younger woman. 

Set in Paris, the film follows the shifting dynamics of a romantic triangle; one fueled by love, desire and a longing for the unattainable. Where Tomas is flamboyant and exuberant, immature in his enthusiasm, his husband Martin – played by the illustrious Ben Whishaw – is grounded and even-tempered. A graphic designer who runs a printmaking studio, Martin has his own creative identity independent of Tomas. He loves his husband, and has done through many stormy seasons, but theirs is a relationship built on impulse and comfortable domesticity is never guaranteed. 

In fact, our very first introduction to Tomas is indicative of what’s to come. We first meet Tomas, a German film director, on the set of his latest feature (coincidentally also called Passages). Joined by Martin at the wrap party, Tomas grows increasingly irritated with his husband who refuses to join him on the dancefloor. A newly single Agathe, played by Palme d’Or-winner Adèle Exarchopoulos (Blue Is The Warmest Colour) offers to accompany him instead. 

As the evening progresses, Tomas and Agathe grow closer and closer, their bodies soon enmeshed together in Agathe’s bed. The next morning, Tomas returns home – far from sheepish. “You know what I was doing last night? I had sex with a woman. Can I tell you about it, please?” he gushes to Martin, who, unsurprisingly (though it does seem surprising to Tomas), isn’t all that thrilled by the news. “It was exciting! It was something different,” Tomas continues undeterred.

Dubbed an “unlikely sex symbol” by the New York Times, Rogowski is magnetic to watch – even if you don’t necessarily like his character for most of the film. You might even describe him as frustrating, which I inadvertently did when I spoke to Sachs over Zoom last week.  “I’m interested to hear what part frustrated you,” he laughed, unphased.

An undeniably complex protagonist – at once captivating and divisive – his childish outbursts are so dramatic that you can’t help but feel exasperated by him… and yet, it’s those same child-like qualities that, confusingly, endear him to us too. “Well, it’s interesting because what you’re describing makes me think he’s not really an anti-hero, he’s actually a hero,” Sachs rebukes. “You identify with his vulnerability, but he’s always causing pain and damage as he moves along. It reminds me of a friend I used to have in college who I thought of as someone who, by accident, would have jumped into a sandbox and kicked sand on everybody’s face. But all he really wanted was to be loved – somehow, he didn’t notice that he was kicking up the sand so people would push away and I think Tomas is this kind of character that you want to go towards but also run away from.”

It was with Rogowski that the film’s casting started. Sachs saw him in Michael Haneke’s Happy End and knew he’d stumbled across greatness – watch his karaoke scene on YouTube and, as Sachs puts it, “you’ll understand why I wrote the film for him”. “He’s super compelling and dangerous and sexy and funny and a mess and it’s all the things that make for a really interesting cinematic character.”

What is his fascination with more, I ask? “That’s the part that I feel is most personal to me,” Sachs admits. “That’s the part that I felt very much during the pandemic. I felt a sense of sadness because I couldn’t have more. I think this film is – and maybe all my films are – of a kind of cinema of want and that want is what motivates action. That and the gap between what characters imagined for themselves and what they have, is painfully distant.”

Throughout the film, Tomas acts on desire, irrespective of the consequences that will have. “What does it feel like when you have a passion for something that you can’t quite attain? How does that fuel one’s life?,” Sachs ponders, before answering his own musings. “For Tomas, attaining that something becomes everything. Then when he has it, he suddenly realises he wants something else. And that something else keeps shifting. There’s a hole that can never be totally filled. I think that’s very human and dramatic.”  

On social media, Passages has been dubbed “a movie about a bad boyfriend” – Tomas arrives late, in a sheer crop to meet Agathe’s parents… after having spent the night having sex with Martin. Sachs shrugs his shoulders, “It’s not a bad tagline for the film. Tomas isn’t the person you want to spend your life with, but you can understand why you might want to spend a certain troubled period of your youth with him.” Tomas’ antics bring a sort of dark comic absurdity to the film, which at 91 minutes is considerably shorter than some of the recent blockbusters we’ve been seeing (Oppenheimer, I’m looking at you). 

His eighth feature film, Passages sees Sachs work in a cinematic tradition that prizes attentiveness, immediacy and beauty, creating images that are rich in meaning as he tells a very human-scaled story. In fact, it’s the visual journey that is most important to him here. “I want there to be memories of visual and emotional impact. Much more than plot or story or character, I want images to be part of an audience member’s future. There isn’t any particular one that comes to mind. I just think films are made up of impressions, not of narrative.”

In the U.S., the film’s release has been marred with controversy where it received an NC-17 rating from the Motion Picture Association – most theatres refuse to exhibit non-rated or NC-17-rated films. Sachs called the rating “a form of cultural censorship”. Mubi has rejected the MPA’s assessment and is releasing the film unrated and uncut.

“People are uncomfortable with feelings that are so intimate. It’s only really become an issue in the United States, which is a really repressive cultural landscape. If you’re coming to see this because you hear it’s like a sex film, I don’t want you to be disappointed because it’s really just about a relationship. It’s a human film. There’s a rarity of films for and about adults. Seems unfortunate to me,” says Sachs, who thinks it’s just a storm in a teacup. 

“I think as an experience, the film is one of pleasure, including pain. Pain is a pleasurable experience when it comes through art,” he concludes.

Perceptive, intimate and unashamedly sexy, Passages is an authentic take on the complexities, contradictions and cruelties of love. 

Passages opens in select Irish cinemas from Friday, September 1. 


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‘Passages’: A messy (and undeniably sexy) look at modern relationships

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