“Passages” – Dead Ends [MOVIE REVIEW]

Franz Rogowski as Tomas and Ben Whishaw as Martin. Photo courtesy of SBS Productions and MUBI.

Ira Sachs’ new film “Passages” sounded very promising. A gay marriage is upended when one partner begins an affair with a woman. 

Tomas, an avant-garde filmmaker, and Martin, a graphic designer, have been married for an indeterminate number of years. They have settled into a boring patch and neither can quite identify what’s wrong. After a mundane argument at a bar, Tomas spontaneously asks a beautiful young woman, Agathe, to dance. Much like Tomas and Martin, she is bored with her current romantic relationship and turns to Tomas, like he turns to her, for a thrill. They dance together, around each other, and then into bed. 

Adèle Exarchopoulos as Agathe and Franz Rogowski as Tomas. Photo courtesy of SBS Productions and MUBI.

Thrilled with a new conquest, he confesses the affair to Martin. Revealing a cluelessness that permeates the movie, Tomas is perplexed when Martin does not share his enthusiasm for this spark that might rekindle a missing passion. Agathe, cognizant of his relationship with Martin, seems intrigued and eager to explore a titillating encounter with Tomas. Martin, on the other hand, is through, kicking Tomas out of their apartment. Experiential bisexuality is not what he bargained for in their relationship. Thus begins a back and forth with Tomas who doesn’t know what he wants and is unable to give up Martin entirely.

This is an interesting story focusing on the fluidity of sexual relationships, fidelity and communication. On paper, it is an intriguing concept but as presented on screen there is an emptiness that pulls you away from the possibilities that are laid in front of you. “Making Love,” a controversial film made in 1982 starring Michael Ontkean, Kate Jackson and Harry Hamlin, probed these themes from the standpoint of a happily married man who explores his repressed attraction to men and upends his marriage, unable to grasp how his wife views this betrayal. This was an extremely brave film for that uptight time and had a deleterious effect on the careers of the men, both of whom, rising stars, had to wait several years before they again found A-List success on television (Ontkean in “Twin Peaks” and Hamlin in “L.A. Law”). “Women in Love” (1969), an Academy Award nominated movie based on the D.H. Lawrence novel is an even more complex exploration of fluidity in male and female attraction.  Written by Larry Kramer, who would go on to be a leading gay rights advocate and bring the AIDS crisis to international attention, the film had nuance and a subtle undercurrent about the fluidity of sexual attraction.

Ben Whishaw as Martin. Photo courtesy of SBS Productions and MUBI.

“Passages” has all of the elements necessary to sustain interest. What it doesn’t have is a believable chemistry between Tomas, his husband Martin and his girlfriend Agathe. This, unfortunately, has to be laid at the feet of the star, Franz Rogowski, who plays Tomas enthusiastically with all the shallowness of character but without a believable connection to his co-stars. 

Ben Whishaw’s Martin is centered, hurt, brave, confused and determined. His one scene with Agathe is excruciatingly sincere. There is an emotional connection between the two that is missing from their respective connections with Tomas. Adèle Exarchopoulos, Agathe, is very believable as a young woman game for something new who invests her heart in a precarious relationship with the knowledge aforethought that it may not be what she needs. 

Adele Exarchopoulos and Ben Whishaw. Photo courtesy of SBS Productions and MUBI.

Definitely on the sexually explicit side, the story is strong, character is well developed and the direction flows. It’s entirely possible that the ambiguity of Tomas’ bisexuality was Sachs’ point all along. Perhaps the lack of chemistry is deliberate. Seeing Tomas as a sexual dilettante would be part of a different story. Love and desire are about connection, so maybe this isn’t a love story at all but, rather, a story about collateral damage. In any case, in the end it didn’t resonate with me.

My attraction to this film was the presence of Franz Rogowski who has been so terrific in the films of Christian Petzold (“Transit” and “Undine”). I was definitely disappointed but, on the other hand, Ben Whishaw, whose performances have often left me cold, was a revelation. In a way, playing against type, he was strong, decisive and self-aware in how he conveyed Martin’s needs and the lines he wouldn’t cross. Adèle Exarchopoulos was strong throughout as a catalyst for both the beginning and end of a relationship.

Not a bad film, but my recommendation would be to rewatch the masterful “Women in Love” or even try to find “Making Love” and see if it holds up. 

Opening August 4 at the Nuart.



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