Taking the Scorsese wisdom of “more than 90% of directing a picture is the right casting” to heart, Ira Sachs’ radiantly sexual three-hander Passages couldn’t have assembled a finer trio of actors to explore modern love in all its splendor and messiness. Tomas (Franz Rogowski), a German filmmaker finishing up his latest shoot, is married to Martin (Ben Whishaw), but when Agathe (Adèle Exarchopoulos) comes into Tomas’ life, his world is torn asunder with a fiery passion. In his most mature and focused work to date, Sachs stays mostly centered on Tomas as his shifting heart gets pulled in different directions, Rogowski’s fierce magnetism transfixing the viewer even as his character’s behavior grows all the more erratic.

Inspired by the love triangle of Luchino Visconti’s final film The Innocent, Sachs doesn’t operate on a similarly operatic level, but both films do carry a shared sense of fervor burning in the heart of their characters. The naked emotion, warts and all, that Sachs and frequent co-writer Mauricio Zacharias have examined through their collaborations reaches its fulfilling pinnacle here. With a Fassbinder-esque openness and honesty in portraying all the foibles of the human heart, it’s matched with a distinctly Euro-centric sensibility with a non-judgemental, austere observational style. Cinematographer Josée Deshaies, whose past compositions for Bertrand Bonello can be felt throughout, magnificently frames characters in boxes of emotion, whether it is intimate close-ups as Tomas and Agathe share an embrace or a chilly exchange as Tomas opens up to Martin about wanting to pursue another relationship, the former’s body framed entirely in front of their partner who is sitting on the opposite side of the bed. 

Sachs’ patience in letting this powderkeg of sexuality and romance play out is remarkable. Guided by the strong personalities of each actor, he lets the camera live in their passion, with extended sex sequences between Tomas and Martin as well as Tomas and Agathe playing out in their full glory. This boldness, nearly absent in today’s state of moviemaking, is not as new for Sachs, but it once again convincingly shows that, by illuminating the heated dedication in all of its ecstasy, how sexual desire can be the driving force for all ranges of volatile behavior. While many other filmmakers would shy from showing such explicitness, Sachs triumphantly refutes the recent foolish “unnecessary sex scenes” discourse.

With his French-centered, open-minded tone, Sachs gives grace to this trio as well; Martin tells Tomas he’s free to explore what excites him in their marriage, knowing his affairs have happened before each time he finishes up a new film. Rogowski, in such marvelous fits that one can’t wait to see what he’ll be donning in each new scene, initially exuding an attractive ​​unknowability, travels down a path of romantic self-destruction, and Sachs is fully aware of the actor’s power, similar to a car crash one can’t look away from. Whishaw, while the smallest part of this triangle, gives a tender performance while Martin is wrapped up in Tomas’ exciting unpredictaiblity and detrimental toxicity. In her finest turn since her 2013 breakout, Exarchopoulos has something a bit more fleshed-out: we learn more about Agathe’s work life as a teacher, and her family figures into the narrative to provide a cold sense of reality contrasting the sexual flights of fancy.

It’s in the million small details that make Passages a transfixing watch; the silence between Tomas and Agathe before they have sex for the first time as if it’s their destiny, no words required; the way they sit next to each other at dinner, their bodies intertwined even when they aren’t in bed; the way they serenade one another with low-key ballads; how Tomas returns to Martin after a long absence, wearing a flowery crop top to try winning his heart back; how Agathe’s eyes well up in the middle of the night after Tomas and Martin have sex in the room next door. With his expert eye for these specifics, Sachs imbues each scene with a sense of alluring fascination capturing love in all its messiness. As sensuality turns to cruel erraticism and narcissism swallows passion, Passages becomes a bitter pill, giving a psychological weight to the euphoric frivolity that came before.

Passages premiered at Sundance 2023 and will be released by MUBI.

Grade: B+

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