There are unlikable protagonists, and then there’s Tomas, the tragicomically insufferable narcissist at the center of Ira Sachs’ Passages. A German film director living in Paris, Tomas is, to borrow an overused term, “toxic” — a guy who lies and leeches, connives and cajoles, fucks and finagles his way through the world, his talent and impish, overcaffeinated magnetism clearing the path.
The most endearing thing about Tomas is how utterly decipherable his awfulness is. The fragility of his ego and his insatiable need to be not just desired, but revered, coddled, stimulated — you name it — are so evident as to be almost touching. (If it wasn’t clear: Folks who require niceness in a main character, this one’s not for you.)
The Bottom Line
A wise and unusually wounding work from a beloved indie auteur.
Played by a sensational Franz Rogowski (Transit, Great Freedom), Tomas is also an undeniable force of nature. That goes a long way toward explaining the grip he has on the other two key figures in this wounding, at times bitterly funny, sneakily powerful little movie: his husband Martin (Ben Whishaw) and Agathe (Adèle Exarchopoulos), the Frenchwoman with whom they form a distorted love triangle. Anyone who rolls, or widens, their eyes at the spectacle of two bright, attractive people getting yanked around by a grade-A asshole hasn’t been paying attention to, um, the world, where such things happen to you and me and everyone we know; this story is so universal the movie might as well come with a trigger warning.
Is Tomas a sociopath? A romantic con man always mapping his next move? Or simply fickle and impulsive, chasing his desire du jour, collateral damage be damned? These are questions that may nag at the viewer more than at the filmmaker, whose interest is less trying to understand this guy than chronicling his chaos and, especially, the wreckage left in his wake. How much we’re willing to suffer for someone else’s art is perhaps the more pertinent inquiry here.
A sharp, superbly played portrait of shifting power dynamics among people whose judgment, when it comes to relationships, ranges from defective to deranged, Passages represents a change of pace for Sachs. Largely absent — at least in the film’s first two-thirds — are the bittersweet humanism and gentle melancholy of Love Is Strange and Little Men, or even the battered, hard-won optimism of Keep the Lights On. Those qualities have been replaced by a streak of caustic humor and a cool, bristling intensity. Penned with screenwriting partner Mauricio Zacharias, Passages may not be Sachs’ best, but it’s his boldest — a work of skill and confidence that finds the filmmaker unwilling to grant his characters easy absolutions and unafraid to alienate the audience.
The film’s thorniness shouldn’t be confused with nastiness. It takes longer, and a closer look, to discern Sachs’ usual generosity — and even some of the director’s fans may be tempted to bail on these unfortunate souls early on. But Sachs’ compassion gradually thaws the movie, enveloping its central trio in a sort of rueful, chastening tenderness.
We first see Tomas (Rogowski) on set — eyes flashing with impatience, voice rising in irritation — as he berates an extra. Later, at a wrap party, he meets Agathe (Exarchopoulos), a schoolteacher who’s just dumped her boyfriend and is looking to blow off steam. Hurt that his husband Martin (Whishaw), an English graphic designer, has left the club, Tomas slithers around Agathe on the dance floor. She knows who he is and is smitten; he seduces her because he can.
“I had sex with a woman,” Tomas announces to Martin upon returning home the next morning. And the capper: “Can I tell you about it please?” Martin shrugs it off. “This always happens when you finish a film,” he reassures Tomas. It sounds more like he’s reassuring himself.
These early scenes waste no time establishing the kind of person Tomas is — though you’ll have to wait a few more minutes for him to confess that he’s having a full-fledged affair with Agathe and then browbeat his husband for not being more supportive. “You could say you’re happy for me,” he pouts before twisting the knife: “You’re my brother, Martin!” In an apt visual summation of their marriage, Sachs positions Tomas center-frame and back to camera, almost totally obscuring Martin.
When the two separate and Martin starts dating a writer, Amad (Erwan Kepoa Falé), the script is flipped: A jealous Tomas develops a habit of showing up unannounced at Martin’s apartment, refusing to cede the spotlight in his ex’s life. Meanwhile, he’s already moved in with Agathe. Major relationships in Passages indeed begin and end with barely a flicker of inflection. It’s a counterintuitive yet shrewd narrative approach, the ellipses creating a sense of disorientation befitting the hairpin turns of Tomas’ attentions.
The messiness reaches a mordantly funny climax when Tomas meets Agathe’s parents (Caroline Chaniolleau and Olivier Rabourdin) for the first time, arriving late for lunch — after sleeping at Martin’s, natch — in feisty form and wearing leopard-print pants and a black sheer crop-top with pink dragons on it. The look Agathe’s mother gives her husband is one for the ages.
A not-entirely-surprising swerve in the plot prompts a halfhearted attempt at a pseudo-throuple arrangement. In an agonizing scene, Agathe lies on a bed listening to Tomas and Martin laugh, wrestle and have sex in the next room. I haven’t been so worried about a woman around gay men since…well, Tanya on the yacht in the Season 2 finale of The White Lotus.
But Exarchopoulos invests her character with a steady resilience. Ten years after Blue Is the Warmest Color, the actress still exudes the combination of sleepy-voiced sensuality and emotional alertness that made her such a discovery. What feels new is a self-possession born of life experience. Agathe is neither a saint — we witness her carelessness with the guy she’s dating at the beginning of the film — nor, exactly, a victim. When Tomas tells her he’s falling in love with her, she responds, “You say that when it works for you”; she sees how he operates and tries to make a go of it anyway.
As Agathe comes to understand the extent of her troubles, Exarchopoulos’ performance achieves a sorrowful gravitas. With little more than a downward glance and a sigh during a friend’s aching rendition of early 20th century parlor song “A Perfect Day,” she conjures a lightning-fast roller-coaster of feeling: a dawning realization, a pinprick of heartbreak, then a surge of stoic resolve. And she and a fantastic Whishaw share a shattering scene toward the end as Agathe and Martin sit face-to-face at a café, each finally seeing up close the damage Tomas has done to the other.
Without softening Tomas, Rogowski locates the desperate child beneath his predatory restlessness. When he sings along to a record of Janet Penfold’s “Won’t You Buy My Sweet Blooming Lavender,” gazing at Agathe intently, you sense the bottomless hunger for love that drives his manipulations. It’s a ferocious turn, but also a brilliantly shaded one.
Whereas Sachs’ last film, Frankie, felt baggy and ineffectual, Passages marks a return to his trademark narrative economy. With the steadfast lack of melodrama we’ve come to expect from him, the writer-director packs more incident, life and unassuming complexity into 90 minutes than most filmmakers muster in twice that runtime. If anything, the film is leaner than necessary: Apart from the opening scene, a glimpse of post-production and some chatter about screenings and festivals, we don’t see Tomas at work. His dysfunction is on full, dastardly display; less so the creative gift ostensibly so integral to his allure.
Passages is one of Sachs’ most polished efforts, distinguished by a compositional intelligence and elegance that never call attention to themselves. It’s also the rare American film with an authentically European feel, from the vivid but non-fetishized Paris setting — you can taste the burnt espresso and tang of mediocre gin-and-tonics, feel the chill of drafty apartments with creaking wood floors — to the disinterest in character relatability.
Where Sachs differs from some European contemporaries is in his refusal to punish. Passages is imbued with a sense of life lived — at times painfully — and lessons learned, but there’s no finger-wagging, and the filmmaker is willing to spare those who deserve to be spared. Even Tomas’ pique at his comeuppance mellows into resignation over the course of the travelling shots that close the film. (Those shots play like a rejoinder to the glowingly hopeful last shot of Love Is Strange, and, in the final freeze-frame, also recall the end of Truffaut’s The 400 Blows — another story of a lost boy, albeit a more sympathetic one.)
You may notice that the loneliness of the movie’s concluding images is offset by the cheerful din of schoolkids playing and the City of Lights coming alive at dusk — the sights and sounds of a world continuing to spin. In Passages, Sachs turns out to have a trick up his sleeve: keeping us at arm’s length only to reveal he’s been holding us all along.