‘Passages’ Review: Three Sensational Performances in This 4-Star Film

This story about infidelity and love is relentlessly moving, brutally honest, sexually graphic and — above all — fascinating.

Franz Rogowski and Adèle Exarchopoulos in Passages. Courtesy of MUBI

“Love comes in many forms, but it’s such a precious thing why not try them all?” wrote Oscar Wilde, and that’s what Passages, the brave, captivating and exemplary film by renowned writer-director Ira Sachs, is about. Stupidly saddled with a rare NC-17 rating, which means it cannot be shown to general audiences, Mr. Sachs plans to release it without any rating at all, which means it will be unfairly rejected by bigger venues and screened only in small, independent cinemas. It’s a crime, because this is a superior film of sensitivity and intelligence with a lot to say about infidelity, love, sex, bisexuality and monogamy in the troubled chaos of today’s mottled emotional landscape. My advice is seek it out wherever you can find it and learn something.

PASSAGES ★★★★ (4/4 stars)
Directed by: Ira Sachs
Written by: Mauricio Zacharias, Ira Sachs
Starring: Franz Rogowski, Ben Whishaw, Adèle Exarchopoulos
Running time: 91 mins.

Dominated by three sensational performances, Passages invites obvious comparisons to Sunday, Bloody Sunday, John Schlesinger’s brilliant 1971 film about  the devastating effects of a ménage à trois on an otherwise conventional heterosexual marriage.  This time the roles are reversed and the marriage is now between Tomas, an eccentric gay film director in Paris (played by the riveting German actor Franz Rugowski) and his husband, a British expatriate named Martin (acclaimed stage star Ben Whishaw, who played Q in the recent James Bond films). They are devoted lovers with a solid partnership until Tomas meets French schoolteacher Agathe (Adèle Exarchopoulas) at a party, takes her to bed, and likes it—to the chagrin of Martin.

Tomas begs for patience. Martin suspects his relationship is heading toward the end. Instead of coming to his senses, Tomas starts lying about the amount of time he spends  in clandestine meetings with Agathe. Eventually, Martin relaxes his anxiety and his home life improves—until Tomas makes Agathe pregnant but cannot fully and honestly commit to her because he’s still in love with Martin.  Driven away in frustration, Martin starts a new relationship with another, more responsible man—a writer and magazine editor who offers him a better life—but he still loves Tomas. The next best thing is for all three of them to share themselves in an experimental threesome. “I’m confused,” confesses Tomas, and he’s not kidding. There are moments, as the film progresses, when the viewer needs patience, too.

Franz Rogowski and Ben Whishaw in Passages. Courtesy of MUBI

Passages excels in the galvanizing subtlety of Franz Rugowski as Tomas, whose inability to commit to a single consummate relationship leads to destabilizing indiscretions that impact everyone who loves him. Ben Whishaw has the smaller, less well developed role, but his naturalism and in-the-moment perfection inform each and every scene. There are people like these in life. Maybe you are one of them. Maybe I am, too. But they are never examined or profiled with the accuracy and attention to detail inherent in Ira Sachs’ screenplay (co-authored with  Mauricio Zacharias) and direction—and miraculous in 91 minutes of playing time. Sachs gives his actors the space to develop complex characters that make us feel their unhappiness and disillusion. The film captures the moods of relationships in transition without ever being condescending or judgmental. The sex scenes and nudity are so graphic that it’s safe to say this is not a film for everyone, but is as relentlessly moving as it is fascinating. Brutal honesty melds with nuanced passion to create a staggering emotional intensity, culminating in a resolve that is nothing less than heartbreaking. Deserted by both Martin and Agathe, Tomas may never regain his capacity for love, but he will never forget his talent for inflicting pain disguised as love. Just like real life, if you ask me.

Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.

‘Passages’ Review: Three Sensational Performances in This 4-Star Film