Passages: A Frustrating Portrait of a Philanderer

Photo by Guy Ferrandis / SBS PRODUCTIONS courtesy Chicago Critics Film Festival.

It was only recently that I was able to enjoy one of this year’s most acclaimed releases, Past Lives, as its UK release trailed far behind its initial American run. Like everyone else I was slowly overwhelmed by its knotty tale of heartbreak, yearning and regret, portraying an intense, complex love triangle burdened with so much affection, ambivalence and confusion that I was free to spend many hours unpacking its subtleties and sadness. The next night, I watched Passages, a film which also explores a triangular relationship of shifting affections and deep, powerful emotions between two men and one woman. However, beyond that surface description, the two films, and the relationships they portray, could hardly be more dissimilar. In Past Lives, there’s no one to blame, they’re all just casualties of one another’s hesitance and affection; the situation in Passages, though, is quite another matter.

From the opening scene, we’re left in no doubt that Tomas (Franz Rogowski) is a narcissistic, arrogant child of a man who is incapable of empathizing with his partners and who uses polyamory and touchy-feely language as a smokescreen to enable his adolescent desires. He is married to the patient and sensitive Martin (Ben Whishaw) but swiftly embarks on an affair with an attractive young schoolteacher Agathe (Adele Exarchopolous) he meets at a party. He and Martin have a nominal understanding, but Martin is clearly distressed and hurt by Tomas’s wandering gaze, his lack of discretion and his flagrant dishonesty. Tomas makes one selfish, inconsiderate choice after another, trying to have his cake and eat it, living up to every negative stereotype about bisexual men, flitting from Martin to Agathe and back again, according to whichever of them is more able to get under his skin.

Tomas is a taxing lead to watch, of that there’s no doubt. He could well be insufferable if not for the conviction with which Rogowski plays him. We can just about see what Agathe and Martin see in him, even if we’re screaming at them to ditch him at every turn. The film is supported by a trio of phenomenal performances, as one would expect with such great actors in the roles. Since her astonishing performance in Blue is the Warmest Color, Exarchopolous has been waiting for another opportunity to blow us all away and although she has the most understated (and underwritten) role to play, she invests Agathe with a deep sense of frustration and sadness.

This is even more strongly felt in Whishaw’s performance as Martin, with both actors playing people who, try as they might to break out of their submissive roles, just can’t stop themselves from falling victim to good-looking manipulators like Tomas and being made fools of. Being made a fool is, meanwhile, something Tomas cannot countenance. For all his talk of exploration and self-discovery, he’s fiercely jealous and possessive, fixated on his idyllic outcome where he gets exactly what he wants all the time. He’s almost a masculine twin to the title character of Pablo Larrain’s masterpiece Ema, insidiously inveigling his way into people’s lives and their beds, except without the pain, the forward planning, audacity and righteous anger to justify his actions, instead, he’s a mundane manipulator who won’t budge an inch out of his comfort zone while expecting others to bend over to his will at the first bat of his lashes.

That’s sort of the issue with Passages. As morbidly compelling as this relationship drama is, it lacks the insight or novelty to make itself truly rewarding. There’s a slightly decadent feel to the world of bedhopping Parisian bohemians it portrays, with director Ira Sachs’s attention to detail reminiscent of a debauched cross between Eric Rohmer and early Pedro Almodóvar, and there’s a scandalous thrill in the feeling one gets watching the movie spill the tea. The strongest sense of community I’ve felt with any audience this year is the collective moment of “the absolute nerve of this bitch” we all shared during Tomas’s most jaw-dropping escapade.

Lots of movies follow unlikable characters, encouraging us to look deeply at them and their behavior, see in them elements of our society or of ourselves we would sooner not admit to or face. Passages is a rare example of a movie that gives us someone to outright root against. Even Lydia Tar had moments of moral relativism where she earned the viewer’s respect. Tomas is someone I couldn’t wait to see reap what he had sown. Perhaps it wasn’t what I had expected from the director of Love is Strange and the heartbreaking Little Men, nor perhaps was it quite what I wanted. But as a sour little antidote to the poignance and complexity of Past Lives, there was something quite indulgent about Passages.

Written by Hal Kitchen

A graduate of the University of Kent, Reviews Editor Hal Kitchen joined Film Obsessive as a freelance writer in May 2020 following their postgraduate studies in Film with a specialization in Gender Theory and Studies. In November 2020 Hal assumed their role as Reviews Editor. Since then, Hal has written extensively for the site, writing analytical and critical pieces on film, and has represented the site at international film festivals including The London Film Festival and Panic Fest.

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