When you think of French romances, especially as depicted on film between multiple parties, you often think of sexual liaisons, free from emotions, where everyone seems to be on board. While that undoubtedly is based in some degree of truth, real life is usually messier than that. Passages traffics in that sort of field, showing how a love triangle can go as wrong as it can go right, while never being manipulative. It’s low-key and realistic, making for a smaller offering at the Sundance Film Festival, but a quality one as well.
Passages feels real, and that’s largely what makes the difference here. The acting is naturalistic, and even when there’s blowouts and they go big, it still seems to be a part of reality. If that prevents the narrative from particularly finding an extra gear, the mellow and observational nature of it all just makes it seem even more like what happens in life.
German filmmaker Tomas (Franz Rogowski) has been with his husband Martin (Ben Whishaw) for fifteen years, living in Paris. One day, while at a party, he almost impulsively begins an affair with a young woman named Agathe (Adèle Exarchopoulos). Coming home and telling Martin, Tomas sees it as no big deal, little more than embracing his fluid sexuality. Martin, however, takes it a little bit differently. Tomas continues seeing Agathe, which doesn’t help matters, either.
When Martin begins an affair of his own, he unlocks an unexpected bit of jealousy within Tomas. Now, the latter is moving in with Agathe, who thinks they’re a couple with a future, even though he’s still trying to sleep with the former. Martin, however, is clearly readier to move on. Will Thomas throw away his marriage, or can he reconcile what he’s started?
The trio of Adèle Exarchopoulos, Franz Rogowski, and Ben Whishaw navigate these tricky roles quite well. Exarchopoulos blew me away in Blue is the Warmest Color and this heartbreaking role has echos of that. Rogowski is a bit annoying and self-centered, but within the realm of the sorts of artists we all know. Then, there’s Whishaw, who gets the least of the three to do, but makes the most of it. The cast also includes Théo Cholbi and William Nadylam, among others, but Exarchopoulos, Rogowski, and Whishaw are where it’s at.
Filmmaker Ira Sachs, working with co-writer Mauricio Zacharias, insists on making this feel as lived in as possible. Sachs and Zacharias have a somewhat slight premise, but the former’s empathetic yet unsparing direction makes up for it. Things feel natural, through and through. Sachs is content to have Passages just observe the main characters, not judging them, but never letting them off the hook, either.
Passages could have easily been too lurid or sexy for its own good, but while the characters may often be horny, the filmmaker has a steady enough hand to keep things on the intended level. It’s not a Sundance highlight, but it’s a solid middle of the road flick that offers up strong direction, good acting, and a unique take on its premise.