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film review
  • Passages
  • Directed by Ira Sachs
  • Written by Mauricio Zacharias and Ira Sachs
  • Starring Franz Rogowski, Ben Whishaw and Adèle Exarchopoulos
  • Classification N/A; 92 minutes
  • Opens at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox and Vancouver’s Vancity theatres Aug. 11; Montreal and Quebec City Aug. 18

The new drama Passages is, by my count, the second movie in a year to open with a sequence involving its own film shoot.

The first one arrived this past fall, Sebastián Lelio’s The Wonder, with a scene depicting the actual studio sound stage in which the period drama was filmed – ostensibly to remind its audience that all fiction, including this tale of fanciful storytelling, is constructed from the ground up. As a framing device, it was ambitious but extraneous.

More fitting and semi-successful is the similarly meta contextual trick that director Ira Sachs pulls off at the start of Passages, his raw, seductive but ultimately frustrating romance.

Sachs opens his film with a scene in which an impatient German director named Tomas (Franz Rogowski) is trying to micromanage a standard set-up shot for his new Paris-shot movie, also titled Passages. While offering contradictory instructions to his actor on how to enter a room – arms moving swiftly, no wait, hands remaining in pockets – Tomas seems barely capable of making a single simple decision, despite projecting an overbearing air of confidence. It is a nicely wry moment that telegraphs what a commanding but insufferable jerk this Fassbinder wannabe turns out to be. To the people who love him, for whatever reason, he only carries the illusory weight of respect, the faux-hierarchal position of control.

His partners, or rather victims, are husband Martin (Ben Whishaw) and girlfriend Agathe (Adèle Exarchopoulos). The seeds of the love triangle are planted at the wrap party for Tomas’s film. It is clear that there is tension between the flamboyant filmmaker and the more straitlaced Martin, so much so that Tomas shows no hesitation in pursuing Agathe, who held some kind of minor crew position on the film and is in a slightly vulnerable position, having just broken up with her own boyfriend. And so begins a messy spate of comings and goings that leaves Martin and Agathe the playthings of an impetuous lover.

Sachs’ scenario, co-written with Mauricio Zacharias, has big, cavernous room for enough sweaty melodrama to fill a miniseries, not to mention an insatiable curiosity about the pains of chasing what you can’t have. It’s just that, as sketched out in the film’s script and personified by Rogowski’s thin and rather cocky performance, it is exceedingly difficult to lock in on just why either Martin or Agathe would throw so much of themselves into the void that is Tomas. The man is a caricature of selfishness – annoying and aggravating without the compelling layers to justify such a persona. It is a dare to spend 93 minutes in his presence, let alone a lifetime.

That isn’t to say that movies cannot revolve around detestable characters – hardly. It is only that in Tomas’s case, the character is a non-starter. As is Agathe, whom Sachs seems to have little interest in beyond her status as a token woman thrown into a same-sex mix. The romantic tension he seems to believe he is testing throughout the film simply isn’t present so much as the nagging dictionary definition of “jealousy.” The angst never adds up.

The director does take the film on some interesting detours on its way to arriving at an obvious destination. These include an enjoyably awkward and quite funny dinner between Tomas, Agathe and her upper-crust Parisian parents and a single-take sex scene between Tomas and Martin, whose matter-of-fact passions seem to have disturbed the prudes governing the U.S. Motion Picture Association’s ratings board, which slapped a kiss-of-death NC-17 classification on the film. (U.S. distributor MUBI will release the movie unrated.) The controversy, though, does afford Passages a brand of headline-juicing flare that its actual contents could never have hoped to deliver.

Sachs decides to close out his story with an impressively long, unbroken shot that Tomas would seem incapable of directing himself – there is too much technical prowess involved, too much planning, too much self-confidence, too much self-control. But by that point, Passages has done as much as it can to make Tomas a figure of interest. The director simply doesn’t make the cut.

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