PASSAGES and the Irresistible Chaos of Connection

The piece below was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the art being covered in this piece wouldn't exist.

Ira Sachs’ latest quietly devastating drama is all about the power and pain of human desire–but does it place polyamory in an emotional crossfire it doesn’t deserve?

Tomas (Franz Rogowski) is a mercurial art film director whose professional outbursts mirror his personal ones. He loses himself in parties with friends, constantly seeking new stimulation; his husband, Martin (Ben Whishaw), has quietly adapted to Tomas’ unpredictable behavior, finding method in his madness–even Tomas’ spur-of-the-moment romances with others. Tomas’ sudden spark with schoolteacher Agathe (Adèle Exarchapoulos) catches both men by surprise–neither Tomas nor Martin knows how to confront Martin’s emerging bisexuality. Tomas loses himself in the passion of being with Agathe, but when Martin decides to explore his own affections elsewhere, Tomas’ resulting emotional frenzy threatens to wreak havoc on all three connected partners.

Befitting its title, the characters of Ira Sachs’ latest film are perpetually caught in liminal spaces. Its biggest moments occur in places of transition–hallways, sidewalks, vehicles–as the three leads pursue passions or surrender them to others. Likewise, any moment that takes place in somewhere static–a classroom, kitchen, or more pointedly, a bedroom–threatens to gather up the energy of its stationary characters to near breaking points. After Tomas’ first encounter with Agathe, Martin cautions him that something like this happens to Tomas after he finishes a new project; that filling one emotional void leaves Tomas with another. When in motion, Tomas is especially happy to shed off his excess energy–when forced to stand still, he can’t help but want to be anywhere else. To Tomas, to remain somewhere is to leave other places or people unexplored–left with nothing but the consequences of where he chooses to be.

It’s also fitting, then, that Passages’ opening scene features Tomas berating the lead of his film for their inability to properly walk down a staircase in what should be an interstitial shot. It’s a moment that should only last a few seconds onscreen but spirals out of control due to Tomas’ manic inability to convey what he wants as much as his actors struggle to adhere to his indeterminable direction. There are limits to how much Tomas can make himself understood, as well as to how others make themselves understood by him. As much as Tomas revels in this sense of emotional control, he’s blind to how much he can’t control his own emotions–even as everyone around him suffers for it. Passages maintains a patient yet exacting gaze upon the characters’ varying ability to reckon with these moments of emotional transition, and their inability to communicate and understand how precisely these characters impact one another.

Tomas, Agathe, and Martin’s central emotional dynamic undoubtedly makes for compelling drama despite their own admonishments of melodrama or erratic behavior; it’s a trait of Passages that drew both equal fascination and hesitation, as a cis bisexual man in polyamorous relationships. There are enough films and TV that dramatize negative tropes of both bisexuality and polyamory/ethical non-monogamy; there’s nothing more to be gained from yet another story about a depraved bisexual whose fleeting whims inflict emotional damage upon their partners, of bisexual characters who must be forced to pick a side, or of triad-plus relationships whose consensual formation contains within them the seeds of their own inevitable failure.

Passages doesn’t repudiate some of these ideas–the ethics side of ethical non-monogamy feel like an afterthought to Tomas–but Sachs’ film at least has the emotional and storytelling nuance to not root Tomas’ chaotic behavior in the non-conformity of his sexuality or relationships. While the character’s manic energy slashes the longevity of his connections from the start, Sachs and Rogowski are unrepentant about Tomas’ total fuckboy behavior. What’s more, Whishaw and Exarchopoulous effectively dramatize how such energy draws in both Martin and Agathe–and anyone who could be caught in Tomas’ gaze. Rogowski’s performance is both domineering and vulnerable, exuding an egotistical demand of the world shared between controlling creatives and petulant children; going deeper, Tomas’ sexuality seems to stem from this worldview rather than the other way around. As expressed by director Sachs, Tomas is more sexual than bisexual, someone whose endless drive for attainability and conflict doesn’t have its own roots in one particular sex. It’s clear that Tomas does gain some sincere emotional fulfillment through his relationships with Martin and Agathe; however, Sachs remains skeptical on whether or not the same fulfillment could be gained by swapping out either partner with any other member of the human race, as long as they manage to gain Tomas’ attention and affection. Mileage may vary on whether or not this is truly a subversion of the “chaotic bisexual” trope, or merely sexual semantics posing as a nuanced depiction of one’s non-heteronormative sexuality. However, Sachs and Rogowski admittedly place more emotional judgment not on Tomas’ choice of partners, but his crippling inability to nuture the connections he chooses to have with others beyond the passion of a fleeting moment.

At the same time, the vivacity belying such selfishness quickly inspires an equal frenzy in those around Tomas. Whishaw’s Martin and Exarchopoulos’ Agathe feel like they satisfy Tomas’ craving for reliability and stability for Tomas during emotional crisis; yet Sachs also infers how both partners find similar satisfaction in his appealing spontaneity. With impulsive and intimate sex scenes with both partners, as well as an obsessive amount of attention given once they surrender to Tomas’ pleas to connect with them, Sachs illustrates how rewarding Tomas’ attention can feel to Martin and Agathe even after putting in an unfair amount of comparable emotional labor to attain it. Non-Monogamy, like any relationship, can take an exacting emotional toll as one navigates complex new power and emotional dynamics. It requires self-introspection, attention, and emotional literacy. It’s a damn good amount of work required of anyone to make it work in the first place. While it’s clear that Martin and Agathe may possess the emotional wherewithal to make that effort for someone like Tomas, Tomas’ self-centeredness undoes any effort that his two partners may put into the emotional bonds they have with him.

It’s a nuanced take on polyamory that feels missing from most other dramatizations, admonishing how one person’s selfish actions and lack of communication may bring about an end to what could otherwise have been a healthy relationship dynamic. This is further evidenced in some of Passages’ most moving moments, notably in a climactic scene between Agathe and Martin where the two of them confront Tomas’ impact on them without him present. They find a quiet strength in one another as both metamours and loose acquaintances, a promising friendship undone by the strongest connection they have in common.

But as much as this is an aspect of Passages I praise, the briefly polyamorous nature of this triad’s relationship also feels like one of its most unrealized features. An earlier scene featuring Tomas leaving one partner’s bed for another in the same house may be the film’s most straightforward depiction of polyamory, but at the same time, it feels like one of its most reductive acts of representing what such ethical non-monogamy is ultimately about. It’s fair that Tomas may also have the same emotionally-stunted mindset while Martin/Agathe don’t, which is another reason why this triad seems doomed to failure. However, it feels like such a missed opportunity in Passages‘ brief runtime to deny further illustrating that what inevitably dooms Tomas, Martin, and Agathe’s time together are the individual choices made in their unconventional relationship and not the nature of the relationship itself.

The bittersweet nature of each of these relationships is only heightened by the amount of tenderness each of the three leads gives their characters. While Rogowski’s Tomas can’t help but be a focal point by being the most soft-spoken bull in an antiques shop you’ve ever seen, Whishaw’s Martin manages to be so level-headed in the most trying of emotional circumstances, underscoring a maddening amount of patience that this character has extended his partner over multiple years. Agathe is admittedly a cipher for a good portion of the film’s runtime, kept at arms’ length by being seen only through the lens of Tomas’ frenzied chemistry with her. However, Exarchopoulos lends Agathe greater shades of complexity as the film progresses, as someone attracted to Tomas as a repudiation of the mundanity of life, as seen in her life as a clubbing schoolteacher whose traditionally-minded parents prove to be rightly suspicious of Tomas’ infatuation with her.

In that way, Passages’ fascination with liminal spaces lends itself to the inner push-and-pull of its characters, not to be rooted in one emotional state for far too long, and just how fleeting and fluid our impulses and identities can be. For both Martin and Agathe, they find an intoxicating liberation in Tomas, just as Tomas finds safety in them as he struggles to deal with his own inner turmoil. Each of these relationships, however, is toxically predicated on needing one’s partners to fill a void; it reduces the complexities of others down to their ability to fulfill one basic need that can only be addressed by the self.

Passages opens in limited release on August 4th courtesy of Mubi.

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