Films about marriage seem to be in fashion at the moment. We’ve got the wonderfully insightful You Hurt My Feelings to look forward to, and who could forget last year’s Don’t Worry Darling, a darker take on a traditional, patriarchal marriage? Not to mention Polite Society, which revolves around an arranged marriage, as did the rom-com What’s Love Got To Do With It?
Director Ira Sachs has a slightly more cynical take on romance. In his new film Passages, sexuality is fluid, and marriage is simply a different name for a relationship. Our protagonist (if you can call Franz Rogowski’s character that) is a restless soul who finds himself attracted to and later in bed with a woman.
The thing is, Tomas is actually married to a man. A man called Martin (Ben Whishaw), to be exact.
Tomas and Martin’s marriage quickly begins to unravel after Tomas begins a passionate affair with Agathe (Adèle Exarchopoulos). It doesn’t help that Tomas is in the middle of making a film, and the whole process is seemingly stressing him out so much you begin to wonder if he likes filmmaking at all.
Sachs has, of course, built his entire career around exploring uncomfortable topics on screen, and Passages fits into such an eccentric filmography nicely. Passages feels most similar to Sachs’s semi-auto-biographical Keep The Lights On, which also revolved around a filmmaker.
While Passages might have less of a personal touch to it, it explores a fascinatingly messy threesome at its heart. Passages is liberally European in its approach to sex; sex is for pleasure, and while intimate, it’s not the grand gesture of love that American rom-coms have led us to believe it is.
Sachs is unashamedly horny here, but the sex in Passages never feels gratuitous. Instead, it provides us with a deeper, more detailed understanding of the dynamics between characters. Martin gets into bed with Tomas, clearly ready to have sex with his husband, but Tomas turning away and turning his light off tells us more than a monologue about desire and love ever could.
Sachs is also an intuitive filmmaker when it comes to casting. Ben Whishaw is wonderfully empathetic but crucially never pathetic as Martin. Adèle Exarchopoulos has the hardest job of the central trio with a thinly written role, but Exarchopoulos’ natural charisma does a lot of the heavy lifting.
But it’s Rogowski’s film. The German actor has impressed critics and audiences alike in films like Transit, Undine and The Great Freedom. In all those films and especially in Passages, Rogowski is almost exhaustingly magnetic, even when he is deeply unlikable. He plays Tomas as an impulsive firecracker who acts before he thinks.
Rogowski has the same aura of mystery as Tom Burke, and if we ever get both of them in the same film, the screen might just explode. That mystery plays really well against Whishaw’s more open and honest performance and Exarchopoulos’ vulnerability, creating a dizzying dynamic.
Passages sometimes succumbs to pure melodrama, but at its best moments, this is a wildly sexy exploration of relationships and sexuality and how the two can sometimes complicate each other.
Passages screens at Sundance Film Festival London and is released in the UK on 1 September.