Sundance 2023: Passages Review

The (t)horniest film at Sundance this year

Anyone wondering where they fall on the Kinsey scale simply must see Passages. This smokin’ love triangle from Ira Sachs should get viewers hot and bothered no matter their fancy. Franz Rogowski (Undine), Ben Whishaw (Women Talking), and Adèle Exarchopoulos (Blue Is the Warmest Colour) play three soul-searchers caught in a web. The actors are all at the top of their game here and Sachs delivers his thorniest and horniest work yet with this intimate portrait of love, sex, and fidelity.

German filmmaker Tomas (Rogowski) has a fickle eye for beauty. The film makes his struggle for satisfaction clear from the outset as he directs a film scene in a nightclub. Tomas makes an actor walk down the stairs again and again. Bored by the actor’s use of his hands, Tomas berates the actor for walking without dramatic spark. He’s the typical toxic male director who likes calling shots and belittling others.

Cut to a nightclub where Tomas and his husband Martin (Whishaw) make friends with a young woman named Agathe (Exarchopoulos). Martin isn’t feeling the vibe and leaves the party, while sparks fly between Tomas and Agathe on the dance floor. When Tomas returns home the next morning, he drops a bombshell. “I had sex with a woman,” he tells his husband. Martin, visibly flustered, shakes it off and reassures himself that this always happens when Tomas finishes a movie.


Sparks and Passion

A one-night stand doesn’t satisfy Tomas’s hunger, though. He continues meeting Agathe in secret, ducking away from Martin for steamy bursts of passion. Their connection is pretty hot, but it’s mostly physical. Passages cuts from the sheets to the streets as Martin tries to engage Tomas in the travails of a relationship. They meet with friends, but Tomas is late and then won’t go home with Martin. In both cases, they know why.


Passages doesn’t marinate in the drama of betrayal. Relationships begin and end quickly here, underscoring the coldness that Tomas deserves. But Sachs and co-writer Mauricio Zacharias smartly probe the messiness of monogamy and polyamory when minds aren’t alike. Tomas, for one, clearly feels things out regarding his sexuality. Attracted physically and emotionally to Agathe and Martin alike, he’s still the “gayest” presence in the film thanks to a smartly tailored wardrobe of flamboyantly homosexual sweaters and crop tops. (The loudest ensemble of which he wears while meeting Agathe’s parents.) When they all reluctantly explore throuple territory, there’s a painful scene of Agathe alone on her bed as Martin and Tomas audibly cozy up in the room down the hall.

But the biggest spark of passion erupts after Martin leaves Tomas and they collide furiously with inevitable breakup sex. In one steamy number, Martin forcibly dominates his ex. Sachs frames Whishaw from behind, leaving Rogowski’s face centre frame as Tomas pants in ecstasy. There’s a heat to this scene that Passages doesn’t find in Tomas’s trysts with Agathe, but the amorous pulse doubly underscores Tomas’s petulant cruelty that follows in the afterglow. He is, simply, a total shit.


A Throuple of Great Performances

Sachs strips the drama of Passages down to its barest layers and lets the actors, particularly Rogowski do the work. Rogowski solidifies his presence as one of the growing enigmas of world cinema. After appearing in films like Michael Haneke’s Happy End, Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life, Christian Petzold’s Transit, and most notably Sebastian Meise’s Great Freedom, he’s grown to become a character actor with a star’s screen presence. His boyish charm works remarkably well with Tomas’s odious unlikability, too. Despite being a toxic male to the letter T, Rogowski somehow makes him endearing. Tomas is a director with no direction in his own life, using people disposably in a story of his own making. Unlike the movies, though, he learns that the consequences are real.

The reality of his betrayal resonates in the equally strong turns from Whishaw and Exarchopoulos. Whishaw wears Martin’s woundedness well, even when he finds a quick rebound of his own. His inherent sensitivity contrasts sharply with the vitality of Exarchopoulos’s screen presence, making clear the energy that feeds Tomas from one relationship to the next. Sachs lets the drama unfold without much intrusion, favouring natural light and long takes that accentuate the intimacy. There’s not a wasted from or moment in the film’s pointed take on bad romance. Passages is raw, frank, and unsparing portrait of our shared quest for love.



Passages is screening as part of Sundance’s Premieres section.      

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