In ‘Passages’, a Toxic Love Triangle Is a Disaster Waiting To Happen

An unconventional love triangle is at the center of “Passages,” a provocative French drama from American independent filmmaker Ira Sachs. Franz Rogowski stars as Tomas, a German filmmaker living in Paris whose marriage to Englishman Martin (Ben Whishaw) experiences great upheaval after Tomas embarks on an affair with a young Frenchwoman, school teacher Agathe (Adèle Exarchopoulos).

Tomas is first introduced on a film set making his latest film, the aptly-titled “Passages.” While directors are supposed to be in control, he goes above and beyond what is necessary, micromanaging the production to death. At the wrap party at a bar, he blows off steam by dancing with new acquaintance Agathe, and one thing leads to another, and the pair end up going back to her place and having sex. Although Martin was there at the bar, he is not invited to this afterparty, but Tomas has no qualms telling him about it the next morning, describing his sexcapade with a woman as something new and exciting. Understandably, Martin does not congratulate him on the sex.

Sachs does not give a ton of exposition about Tomas and Martin’s relationship, but Rogowski and Whishaw do so much with their body language and dialogue. There is no doubt that there is an intimate bond between the two, but the impression is given that they have been on the rocks for some time. It is never explicitly stated that they are in an open marriage, but the way Tomas divulges the details of what turns into an ongoing affair makes the viewer believe that they are non-monogamous. However, once it becomes clear that Tomas and Agather are more than sex, that there are actual feelings there, Martin seeks comfort in the arms of Amad (Erwan Kepoa Falé), a kind and sensitive writer whose intellect threatens Tomas and his frail ego. Amad also turns out to be a much needed rational voice.

On the surface, “Passages” is about a very modern menage à trois, but it is really a timeless tale of an egotistical man yo-yoing between two lovers. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that Tomas is not just a temperamental artist with an adventurous libido. He is a needy, narcissistic, manipulative man. He plays both Agather and Martin, leading Agather to believe that he can settle into a (relatively) conventional life with her. But after the first bump in the road, a cringe-inducing dinner with Agathe’s parents, Tomas runs back to the warm and familiar. Ultimately, he exploits the fact that Martin wants to be a parent, which is incredibly sad to watch unfold.

All three leads here are fantastic, but it is Whishaw who steals the show with his understated, heartbreaking performance. As for Rogowski, it is not easy to play such an unlikable character, but he does an amazing job of tapping into the different sides of Tomas. Agathe is underwritten compared to the other two, but Exarchopoulos does an excellent job of showing the character’s emotional journey as she becomes disillusioned with Tomas.

Sachs offers an unflinching look at all aspects of these characters’ lives, and that includes their sex lives. The sex scenes are more stark and realistic than what we are used to seeing in cinema, so much so that the film has earned a NC-17 rating. However, as the most explicit sex scene is one between the two men, one has to wonder if a film with only heterosexual love scenes would get slapped with the same rating.

Passages” releases Aug. 4 in select theaters.