PASSAGES. Pain of Existence, Triangles, and Hipster Sex [REVIEW]
How much can one watch on the screen (auto)destructive characters of artists, tossing themselves on life’s twists with the finesse of a large land mammal in a room full of decorative ceramics, experiencing existential dilemmas between the bed, the sofa, and the armchair, whose combined value exceeds the monthly income of most viewers? As Ira Sachs demonstrates, perhaps indefinitely, because such a character is indeed the center and heart of his Passages. Although I should specify – if Sachs proves anything in this regard, it is at most in collaboration with the latest incarnation of the Amazing Actor, the newest incarnation of walking film charisma: Franz Rogowski. It is the German who is the essence and meaning of Passages, which entirely revolves around his portrayal of an artist torn by life’s nightmares.
Passages is a classic melodrama built on the theme of a love triangle. The lively novelty in this structure is the gender configuration in the love entanglement – a girl wedges herself into the relationship of two gay men, only to have the former love of the men nibble at the new, heterosexual life. At the center of this confusion, as mentioned, is Tomas, played by Rogowski – a film director, a bit charming, a bit of a big child, a bit stylized as a cross between Fassbinder and Ozon. Played by Ben Whishaw, Martin is his grounding, a more sensible and subdued counterpoint to the partner’s extroversion, which, however, leads to Tomas being captivated by Agathe (played by the blossoming Adèle Exarchopoulos), whose sensuality and energy excitingly contrast with the calm of the man. Thus begins a love game with many twists, full of erotic tension, mutual reproaches, separations, and reunions.
The decadent flavor of Passages brings to mind the spleen of the French New Wave or its spiritual heirs in the form of creators such as Philippe Garrel or Leos Carax. Full of sex (with excellently shot, organic erotic scenes), humor, and a tragic narrative, it unfolds seemingly leisurely, drawing the viewer into Tomas’s world – a lost narcissist who, wanting to constantly take from life and at the same time afraid to give too much, repeatedly hurts those he loves, including himself. Rogowski is perfect in this role – when needed, he brilliantly brings out the childlike affections of his character, subtly enhances the toxic demonism of his hipster stylization elsewhere, and in crucial moments captivates with his sexually ambivalent charisma. Whishaw and Exarchopoulos bravely keep pace with him, but at the right moments, they take a step back to let the main character shine. Such a well-coordinated ensemble of actors ensures the film both energy and breath.
What is crucial in Passages is emotions. Both those experienced by the characters on the screen and those that we, as viewers, feel. The excesses of Tomas, Martin, and Agathe may evoke irritation, sorrow, or sympathy. Somewhere between them, there is also sympathy, even – or perhaps especially – for Rogowski’s character, who – if we reject the artistic pose and naive expressiveness – is simply a complicated person, which doesn’t mean he’s a bad person. We don’t have to sympathize with him one hundred percent – but recognizing his complexity is one of the foundations of the film.
Passages discourages binary judgments and traditional attachment to characters on the basis of ‘this one is bad, and this one is good.’ Just as in the initial scene of the party, where between bodies, sexually ambiguous tensions arise, so ambiguous are the attitudes of the characters. Just as Tomas has many shades, the betrayed Martin is not exclusively presented as a homosexual variant of a “suffering wife,” seductive Agathe does not turn out to be a cynical villain breaking up a happy relationship for her benefit. Instead, they are something else, and I recommend finding out for yourself.
In addition to the well-constructed story, Passages delights with a discreet texture, seemingly evoking the aforementioned retro atmospheres, yet thoroughly modern, capturing the atmosphere of large European cities and the lives of their bohemians. In sensual frames, woven together with unobtrusive editing, there is somehow the spirit of emotionally-erotic quests, perhaps a bit of confusion, and certainly the overwhelming possibilities that are the lot of contemporary millennials and their successors. In creating this image, Sachs subtly says something interesting – or at least poses interesting questions – about modernity. It’s even better that it looks insane.