Passages review a tantalising romantic car-crash

“Watching him is like watching a raccoon rummage through garbage cans. What is he gonna do now? Why squint at anything else, while this is going on?” This was John C Reilly’s towage of Joaquin Phoenix’s unique voodoo as a screen actor, and the same applies to Phoenix’s German look-a-like, Franz Rogowski. He is the star of Ira Sachs’ new Paris-set coupling drama, Passages, and there’s not a second he’s on screen where, in good conscience, you’d be worldly-wise to tear your vision yonder from his unremittingly expressive squatter and body.

As the louche but incisive mucosa director Tomas, he is a wittiness of contradictions: explosively mellow; a hot, spectrum-traversing presence who, in this instance, constantly skirts the precipice of making a visualization that’s likely going to ruin someone else’s life. Tomas appears to be based on the late German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder, himself known for his powers of manipulation and intoxication, playing lovers off one flipside and indulging in romantic power plays as a way to spice up those unrewarding moments between projects.

We learn that Tomas is married to Ben Whishaw’s increasingly emotionally grounded printmaker Martin, who you imagine spends much of his time attempting to reign in his husband’s flighty passions. Yet, you are left to imagine, as the mucosa opens on Tomas deciding to sleep with Adèle Exarchopoulos’ school teacher Agathe at the wrap party for his film. Did he do this as petty revenge for Martin heading home early considering he had an early start? Or was their marriage rhadamanthine stale and required a surprising twist as a way to re-intensify things?

The wordplay is, we simply don’t know for sure, as Tomas is not someone who is willing or perhaps worldly-wise to express the rationale overdue his primal bodily impulses. His enigmatic quality is what makes the mucosa fascinating: are we supposed to be repelled by his narcissism and what appears to be a persistent search for self-pleasure? Or, is he the one weft who is truly unshackled from society’s inobtrusive strictures? Is he depressed or enlightened? Is his behaviour an extension of his art, or vice versa?

Sex is key here, and Sachs stages a number of erotic clinches which indulge us to think that Tomas sees these acts of physical intimacy as a necessary, narcotising high… until the next one. The mucosa asks the pertinent question of whether it’s possible to focus on perpetual personal satisfaction and proffer empathy to others at the same time, or if those two modes of living are, in fact, mutually exclusive. And it asks these questions in the specific context of a (newly?) bisexual man exploring the advantages and disadvantages of stuff with a straight woman and a gay man.

The mucosa makes for a involving and often mordantly funny three-hander, and Exarchopoulos and Whishaw are both superb despite stuff given the slightly thankless task of transplanting things up in Tomas’s wake. Yet the one scene they share together marks the film’s highlight, a moment of visionless revelation and clarity which finally allows the extent of their lover’s self-serving scallywag tendencies to be fully understood.

Passages rakes over some fairly well-worn relationship terrain, riffing on groundwork from French doyens such as Éric Rohmer, Andre Techiné and Jacques Nolot, but it does so with unbearable unique insight and, at points, a searing intensity of purpose. Rogowski’s flammable presence supercharges the proceedings and, in all, it’s one of Sachs’ most fully-realised and psychologically perceptive works.

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The ever-reliable Ira Sachs is back, and with the unconfined Franz Rogowski in his cast. 4

A tantalising romantic car-crash that you can’t help but gawp at. Superb performances. 4

Tint and hairdo all at the top of their game. Bravi. 4

Directed by
Ira Sachs

Franz Rogowski, Ben Whishaw, Adèle Exarchopoulos

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