The physical intimacy in Ira Sachs’ steamy love-triangle drama is essential to understanding the emotional intimacy between the characters, as well as the complexities of queer relationships, says Laura Venning.
Was there ever a trio of actors as beautiful as Franz Rogowski, Ben Whishaw and Adèle Exarchopoulos in Ira Sachs’ Passages (2023)? Rogowski has one of modern cinema’s most compelling faces, with deep-set, catlike eyes, a top lip punctuated by a cleft-palate scar and a stately Roman nose. Playing Tomas in the film, there’s a restlessness in his lithe but strong form that sometimes makes him seem more like a spoiled teenager than a thirty-something. Ben Whishaw is the willowy, sardonic Martin, conscious of his own emotional fragility in conflict with his carnal desires. Finally, Adèle Exarchopoulos, who astonished in Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013) at only 19 years old, is just gorgeous as Agathe, with her olive skin, plump lips and radiant smile; she initially pursues passion and danger, which later gives way to vulnerability.
Passages is the sexually charged story of impetuous German filmmaker Tomas who finds himself unexpectedly drawn away from his husband Martin towards young primary-school teacher Agathe. Sachs, along with co-writer Mauricio Zacharias, reveals little about the characters’ pasts, but implies that though Tomas has a tendency to stray, this might be the first time he’s done so with a woman. Not so much torn between the two as forever chasing the thrill of the forbidden, Tomas abandons his bourgeois life with Martin to shack up with Agathe.
It doesn’t take long, however, for her shine to wear off and for the newly liberated Martin to become an appealing conquest to be won back. The interplay between this toxic triangle is a canvas on which to explore love in all its complexities, including what outwardly queer versus straight-passing relationships look like. The film takes place entirely in a wintry Paris, inspired by the films of French auteurs Éric Rohmer and Maurice Pialat, and their complicated emotional worlds. Production designer Pascale Consigny includes flourishes of navy blue and blood red in the set and costumes, as if the contrasting but complementary colours represent the two people Tomas pulls into his orbit.
What makes this film so arresting is its simultaneously honest and erotic depiction of sex. Sometimes it seems like the film industry is losing its sex drive. Though social media has recently been flooded with arguments against ‘unnecessary’ sex scenes, to maximise profits fewer films are being made with audiences over 18 in mind, meaning that sex is actually disappearing from cinemas. Unfortunately, but unsurprisingly for a film with such explicit gay content and scenes of unabashed female pleasure, the film had been slapped with a commercially challenging NC-17 rating in the US (the 2006 documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated examines how misogynistic and homophobic the Motion Picture Association of America has been regarding sex on screen). Refusing to make cuts to be granted an R rating, Sachs elected to release the film unrated. Passages is a now rare beast: a film for adults that explores sexual desire, especially queer sexual desire, as both a normal part of life and as a space where perhaps your truest self, no matter how ugly, emerges. It’s about eroticism, confusion and control, and each sex scene not only creates believable intimacy between its characters but in so doing it crucially contributes to our understanding of the characters.
These elements are in play from the film’s opening. Tomas, exerting queer cool in a black mesh top, is celebrating finishing shooting his latest film and dances with the effortlessly gorgeous Agathe at the wrap party. Keeping the camera still and in one long take, Sachs shows Tomas and Agathe gradually finding their rhythm, each perhaps as surprised as the other at how naturally their bodies align together to the pulsing beat of the music. Their first sexual encounter that night is mainly offscreen, but when Agathe comes to Tomas’ office they are overcome by their mutual desire and have intense sex right there on the office furniture and floor. It’s the first of three explicit sex scenes in the film, each of which tells the story just as eloquently, if not more so, than any dialogue. Here, the sex is frenetic, joyful and chaotic; each person is turned on by their power over the other.
But Agathe seems to know their fate before it’s even begun. When Tomas claims, post-coital, that he’s falling in love with her, she replies, ‘You say that a lot, I imagine… you say it when it works for you.’ After Tomas leaves Martin to live with her, we see snapshots of this new heterosexual domestic life together, but he doesn’t seem capable of truly embracing it. The second sex scene in the film is stripped of passion – he almost languidly touches her in their grey, semi-dark bedroom, his face an inscrutable mask. Soon after he barges into the flat he shared with Martin in a skin-tight sheer cropped vest, courting danger, pitiful and infuriating. They end up in bed together; Martin dominating and expressing passion, pride and defiance in equal measure. Whishaw has his back to the camera while Rogowski’s face is blocked by Whishaw’s body in what feels more like an art-gallery tableaux than a conventional sex scene.
One might argue that the film reinforces stereotypes about bisexual people; that they’re greedy, insatiable, duplicitous or simply in denial about being gay or straight. But neither Martin nor Agathe questions Tomas’ sexuality or demands that he ‘chooses’ as such, only that he stops obliviously inflicting his emotional torture on them. And what of the title? As well as a sexual innuendo, Passages implies moving forward, past or through somewhere, as if Tomas is an untethered and unstoppable moving object. Perhaps it also communicates that these incidents are short extracts from the richer texts that are these characters’ lives, or that each character is experiencing profound change within themselves, passing from one state to another. And though Tomas is initially alive with the sexual awakening that constitutes his period of change, as the film progresses to its painful denouement he suddenly finds himself on unstable ground. In this involving and, it must be said, deeply sexy film, sex is like a language the characters share, either connecting wordlessly or else struggling to understand each other.
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