What’s remarkable about Passages isn’t the just frankness of this sometimes-brutal, NC-17-rated relationship drama. It’s that it arrives from Ira Sachs, the man behind such gentle films as Love is Strange and Little Men. Passages features all the intimate humanity of Sachs’s last decade of work, but he adds a wonderfully bitter edge and a sharp humor in its depiction of a love triangle between a temperamental director, his steady graphic designer husband, and a young female school teacher.
“I had sex with a woman. Can I tell you about it please?” says Tomas (Franz Rogowski) to his husband, Martin (Ben Whishaw), after he returns home invigorated after a night with Agathe (Adèle Exarchopoulos). The audience giggles at the audacity of the request, but Martin is less enthused by his partner’s plea. Martin quickly turns sanguine, and it’s clear that this is not the first time Tomas has been enamored of someone else—and felt the need to tell his husband about it. Tomas moves out (and in with Agathe), while Martin quickly falls for another man, causing the fickle Tomas to lose interest in Agathe and find himself returning to Martin.
It’s all very modern and incredibly European. Sachs may be American, but he spent time in Paris, where Passages takes place, and the central trio of the cast each have a different nationality: Rogoski is German, Whishaw is British, and Exarchopoulos is French. That’s not to say this type of thing doesn’t happen in America (or American movies), but even in 2023, this brand of love triangle and the casualness around it on screen feels like it could only come from Europe—or Brooklyn. Rogowski’s Tomas feels like someone who read the Blinkist summary of The Ethical Slut, but he didn’t learn anything from skimming the synopsis. He’s strikingly open about his sex and love life, but he doesn’t consider anyone else’s feelings in his approach to non-monogamy. He pings between Agathe and Martin, losing interest almost immediately after his attraction is reciprocated.
Sachs and co-writer Mauricio Zacharias have crafted a sharply drawn character study, centering on Rogowski’s supremely self-involved Tomas, whom film Tiktok is sure to call a narcissist if its users discover this Mubi movie. Rogowski is incredibly charming, swinging his narrow hips and seducing the audience even though we know better. He has the type of magnetism that makes it easy to see how he keeps drawing people back to him, despite being the type of fuckboi who shows up incredibly late to meet your parents for the first time wearing a crop top.
Everything I write about Passages makes me sound like such a square, but this NC-17 movie doesn’t want to shock the audience — and that isn’t the primary reaction it evokes. Sachs isn’t Larry Clark. Instead, the drama of these relationships and all the sex these three people have in various permutations (and positions) is more there for honesty’s sake, with long takes in both the intense love scenes and equally fervent dialogue-driven ones making the audience feel present with Tomas, Martin, and Agathe. The sex in Passages is undeniably hot; Sachs’s naturalistic approach to the trio’s feverish lust is heady and thrilling, with glimpses of the act that aren’t generally seen on screen.
Even beyond the sex, Sachs and Zacharias are genuinely inquisitive about the complexities of desire, relationships, and emotions. They aren’t judging these characters—even Tomas and even when he’s being a total asshole, which is most of the movie. (I am judging Tomas.) While Passages doesn’t belie the seriousness of anyone’s actions or their effects on those around them, the drama is inflected with moments of awkward comedy, especially around Tomas’s behavior.
Those moments in Passages are at once ridiculous and entirely believable, which is why Sachs’s film works so well. These characters feel real and identifiable in their actions and flaws, consistently compelling whether they’re revealing their skin or their emotions.
“Passages” is in theaters Friday.