LGBT Movies: Passages (2023)

When we first meet Tomas (Franz Rogowski) in Passages, director Ira Sachs’s triumphant return to form after 2019’s starry but dour Frankie, he’s berating the lead actor of his latest film for…well, for pretty much everything he does: the way he walks down the stairs, the way he looks around when he enters the room, even the way he swings his arms. If this sounds like projection, that’s because it is. Tomas is volatile at best, a trait that we see extending beyond his professional life as he flirtatiously sidles up to his husband Martin (Ben Whishaw) at a bar where they’re celebrating the end of shooting on Tomas’s new film and, when Martin says he doesn’t want to dance, coldly leaving to writhe and grind with Agathe (Adèle Exarchopoulos), who we’re introduced to as she breaks up with her boyfriend out of boredom. Martin soon cuts in, but only to tell Tomas he’s heading home, leaving Tomas and Agathe to an impulsive night with dramatic impacts on every leg of this nascent love triangle. 

These core performances are the greatest strength of a tightly directed and technically accomplished film. Tomas is an intensely self-conscious yet myopic and selfish man; with a lesser actor, he would be an unsympathetic and insufferable character, but with the chameleonic Rogowski at the helm we understand why even at his most erratic Martin and Agathe find him magnetically attractive. “Soft-spoken, troubled queer man” is becoming something of a specialty for Rogoswki, but compared to, say, the fiery resistance of Hans in Great Freedom, Tomas is confident in who he is and the choices he makes even as they confuse him and everyone around him. Agathe initially seems, and perhaps is, as reckless as Tomas, but compared to his habitual impetuousness Agathe comes off as fully in control of her actions: she does what suits her in the moment, but she does it incisively and with an understanding disregard for the consequences, as long as they benefit her. Exarchopoulos brings a soulfulness to what could, again, easily be a fairly unforgiving role, a thoughtful depth that both shows how consciously she chooses to keep engaging with Tomas and how quickly she recognizes the risk that comes with that. 

Ben Whishaw and Franz Rogowski in Passages, courtesy MUBI.

Caught in the middle is Martin, a world-weary graphic designer who longs for domestic bliss but finds himself trapped in a codependent, repetitively turbulent relationship. Whishaw plays Martin as almost serpentlike, his wiry frame flowing in and out of rooms as he quickly adapts to the new status quo imposed on him by Tomas. Martin is used to this – “This always happens when you finish a film, you just forget!” he yells as Tomas confesses his newfound feelings for Agathe – and Sachs expertly uses subtle visual cues to show Martin retreating into the protective cocoon he’s clearly built over the years in this marriage, cultivating forgotten friendships and layering himself with bright, soft, inviting fabrics. Tomas is raw id, swaying hips barreling through life to take what he wants and meet his rampant desire – often conveyed through exhilarating and frightening tracking shots that tightly follow Tomas as he cycles wildly through Paris – and Martin needs to either weather this latest storm or get out. There’s a profound sadness to Whishaw’s performance, a resignedness that even as he tries to build a life without Tomas in it, he will never be able to escape Tomas’s orbit.   

For a film so focused on character work, it’s caused no small controversy that it earned an increasingly rare NC-17 rating in the U.S. (MUBI has elected to release the film unrated in American cinemas). Exarchopoulos is no stranger to this, having gotten her breakthrough in 2013’s queer drama Blue is the Warmest Color, but there’s little question that what’s portrayed on screen doesn’t remotely merit a rating that could prove quite limiting to the film’s accessibility. The sex in Passages is raw and passionate, but it’s also far from graphic and frankly comes off as grasping, prudish censorship of queer lives, à la YouTube content warnings and removals. With Sachs returning to cinemas with such a masterful example of his craft, it’s well worth showing your ID to see this one.

You can find more of my reviews (and musings on the Oscars) here on The Avocado, and on Letterboxd.