Sunday 3 September 2023

Lust, caution: "Passages"

As with any worthwhile work of art, it may all depend on where you're sitting, standing or lying down. There's been a marked generational divide in the responses to
Passages. Seasoned observers have positioned Ira Sachs' film as a grim horror story, an illustration of the carnage some pile up in the name of love. Youngsters, who may have developed robust coping mechanisms for the emotional violence and mercenary passions of the contemporary dating scene, insist the film holds as a fun, sexy romp. The truth Sachs is attempting to mine may lie somewhere between the two positions: that love is - that love remains - a source of agony and ecstasy. This filmmaker has long specialised in couplings disrupted by exterior forces and events (Forty Shades of Blue, Little Men, Love is Strange); in Passages, the characters fall subject and victim to an internal antsiness that may finally be inextricable from basic horniness. It's a love triangle with corners that just won't behave. The naughtiest of these is Tomas (Franz Rogowski), a German filmmaker loosed on Paris like Fassbinder with a better agent, stylist and personal physician. As becomes apparent during an opening scene in which he micromanages the actors on a set, Tomas is controlling, a stickler, and never happy, and that restlessness can make life difficult - to say the least - for those around him. At the wrap party for his latest project, Tomas hooks up with a teacher, Agathe (Adèle Exarchopoulos), a sudden explosion of heterosexuality received with benumbed shock by his long-time husband Martin (Ben Whishaw). As the fallout spreads and scatters, that frisky, punning title reveals its multiple meanings. Passages refers to: a) the name of Tomas's film; b) the transitional moments this camera observes; c) the various orifices these characters probe in their quest for satisfaction; and d) the backstreets Tomas harriedly cycles through like lovers. This Paris isn't the torchlit city of love the movies have traditionally given us so much as a lived-in, careworn site of widespread collateral damage, what's left standing after emotional bombshells go off. That may finally explain the contrasting responses Passages has provoked: your enjoyment will depend heavily on how much messiness you're willing to accept when it comes to your personal life. I can't say Passages felt especially profound to me, but - with its casual betrayals and unplanned pregnancies - it sure does get messy.

Its strength is that, as ever, Sachs is unusually precise in his description of that messiness. That opening scene, for starters, demonstrates a level of precision as to how scenes in movies get directed; it also establishes that, as a director on a set, Tomas enjoys a level of control over other people that would be almost impossible to replicate elsewhere. Sachs is gentler in his handling - Passages proves generally elegant in its depiction of turmoil - but he nevertheless steers his performers away from the twin extremes of farce and melodrama (approaches material like this would seem to tempt) and back towards this director's signature naturalism. When Martin asks Tomas to return his flat keys, the latter contemptuously yanks from his pocket not just keys but tissues, wraps, assorted fluff and a loose bankcard - exactly what you'd imagine a head-in-the-clouds neo-bohemian to be carrying around in their pockets. There's also a nicely Sachsian scene that introduces Agathe's day job, her young charges, and perhaps the one genuinely healthy relationship in the entire picture. These inquisitive minds ask her if she has a boyfriend; she tells them it's none of their business. (Today's lesson, children, is clearly defined boundaries.) Tomas and Martin's split, meanwhile, turns out to be not just a matter of emotions but shared practicalities and responsibilities: where they put their stuff (be that possessions or genitalia), what to do with the holiday home they jointly own. Here, I think, Passages rather betrays its hand, and some first world problems besides: from this point on, we're forever aware these are characters with the money to afford designer wardrobes, property and being blasé with the hearts of others. This is nothing new for Sachs, one of the few modern American filmmakers to consistently address and dramatise issues of economic standing. Yet Passages is a weird combination of aspirational and torturous: it finds this director using his considerable storytelling nous to try and sell us on (and thus involve us in) a state of affairs you couldn't easily describe as happy. Sorry, kids: I don't think you can find Passages sexy unless you have a pre-existing crush on one or more of the performers tying themselves in masochistic knots.

In many respects, the new film looks and feels like a remake (and attempted upgrade) of an earlier, stronger Sachs work, 2012's Keep the Lights On, about the ups and downs of another turbulent relationship. There, the third party was crack cocaine, which may just be as great a temptation to the voracious appetite as the Exarchopoulos bosom is to Tomas; the parallel between the two set-ups is underlined here when one of Martin's rebound lovers tells him he's "sick" for jonesing after Tomas so. The new movie has stars, reasonably well deployed in the roles of complicated, confused, conflicted human beings, and it has the kind of no-holes-barred sex scenes that catch eyes, turn heads and trouble the American censors. (Doubly so in a broadly sexless cinematic landscape.) It's thirsty, all right. What it lacks is the earlier movie's intensity - and maybe that's why I couldn't find it as scary as the oldtimers did, nor as sexy as the kids insist. None of these relationships matter as much to Sachs, not even Tomas and Martin's marriage, sketched in on the fly as a long-busted flush. (Martin remains a character chiefly defined by delicately tiny espresso cups: he has nothing to contain Tomas in.) Key details go missing. I couldn't fathom why Agathe would have been at the wrap party in the first place; that holiday home, which might have been central to the Sachs of Little Men and Love is Strange, is mentioned once and then forgotten about. More critically, the pain evoked in those earlier films only flickeringly emerges, notably in a late scene between Whishaw and Exarchopoulos that reveals how Tomas has made fools of them both. Sachs moved to France because industry shifts made it nigh-impossible to get character pieces like Keep the Lights On funded in the US. With Passages, the relocation seems to have finally paid off: the film has won glowing reviews and got bums on seats, neither of which was the case with its immediate predecessor, 2019's Frankie. But it has the air of a rebound movie: superficial, less personal, more calculated than deeply felt. Like Tomas, Sachs's camera suddenly seems unmoored and spinning wheels, casting about for another project, another hit, another high. It could still be fun and games - or a cautionary tale waiting to happen.

Passages is now playing in selected cinemas.

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