Something peculiar was happening in Park City, Utah, following the Sundance Film Festival premiere screening of Passages. By the droves, people were running out of the theater and diving headfirst into snow drifts. In lieu of immediate access to a cold shower, this was the audience’s best recourse.
Passages had two of the hottest sex scenes I’ve ever had the uncomfortable, yet also incredibly titillating pleasure of watching on a massive screen in the company of several hundred strangers. One was between a man and a woman. The other between two men. They were both so, so good.
Of course Passages, the wonderful, sparks-filled new film by Ira Sachs (Love Is Strange, Keep the Lights On) is about so much more than the sex. But also, it’s so much about the sex!
It’s minutes into Passages when Tomas (Franz Rogowski) tells his husband, Martin (Ben Whishaw), “I had sex with a woman. Can I tell you about it please?”
As viewers, we watched Tomas, a film director, become exasperated at his “pain in the ass” husband at the shoot’s wrap party when he didn’t want to dance and left early. We saw him connect with Agathe (Adèle Exarchopoulos) after Martin went home, saw them sleep together, saw Tomas not return to his and Martin’s apartment until the next morning, and saw the awkward tension when he walked in the door.
But the bluntness with which Tomas brings it up? It falls like an anvil from the sky onto the film screen. You’re so shocked, you can’t help but start laughing.
It turns out that there’s a lot of humor to be found in this horrifically uncomfortable situation, an event so theoretically upsetting to anyone who has been in a committed relationship that you want to crawl out of your skin and through the theater’s exit doors—but treated with such frankness by Tomas, and then, in turn, Martin, that your only recourse is to giggle in disbelief. Or is it in complete understanding?
There’s a blitz of groaning and yelling and tussling. Tomas—who, in just minutes of screentime, expresses as a walking id, a tangled knot of exposed emotional wires—threatens to pack up and leave. Martin calms him down, saying plainly, “This is what happens every time you finish a film. You just forget.”
But Tomas is someone who acts first, and considers repercussions far too late. He pursues Agathe. They sleep together again, the first of the aforementioned incredible sex scenes. Nothing about it is gratuitous. If anything, it’s informative. Their connection is so clearly electric that you understand how it turns Tomas’ world upside down—even if you suspect something like this has happened before. The next time we see Tomas, he’s moving out of his and Martin’s apartment and in with Agathe.
There doesn’t need to be any explicit explanation about how messy all of this is. God, it’s so familiar and despairing, as the former husbands navigate how to be apart and the new couple figures out their dynamic once the thrill of passion flattens into the mundanity of daily life. If you’ve seen Sachs’ work, you might anticipate things to get even messier, and the writer-director is really on one here.
With Tomas now in a relationship with someone else, Martin has an affair with a handsome writer of whom Tomas is jealous. Being the impulsive person he is—petulance personified—Tomas processes this by making up an excuse to see Martin in their old apartment and then sleeps with him: hot sex scene number two.
Friends, the scene is remarkable. In a rarity for cinema, the body positions of two men having sex looks like what two men’s bodies actually do when they have sex. The hands do the things that the hands do, in the places where they do them. The shifting rhythms make sense. The movement of the legs, and when, make sense. The sounds make sense. I almost couldn’t believe what I was seeing.
Again, this wasn’t gratuitous. You finally understand their dynamic, not just because they have good sex, but because of what happens immediately after. Another anvil drops when Tomas makes a new confession, which we will not spoil. Watching Martin react, and then Tomas react to his reaction, you finally comprehend their dysfunction. Which, perhaps, is their normalcy.
This revelation entraps Tomas, Martin, and Agathe in a cycle of constantly changing dynamics. They wrestle unwieldy, often contradictory emotions and alternate between acting in their own best interests and sabotaging themselves—a calamity of the kind that could only be made with the people you have the most intense, closest relationships to.
Passages is a movie about people who fuck, fight, frustrate each other, feel complicated and often irrational feelings, and who can’t seem to find their way out of the destructive loop they’re in. That’s the beauty of a movie that isn’t afraid to admit that the carnality of relationships is just as powerful as the humanity. Typically, there is no off ramp from that loop. You have to crash through the traffic barrier—which can be as violent as it sounds.
There are people who imprint on you, and you can’t extricate yourself from them. Why can’t we help but torture the people we care about the most? Is it emotional abuse? Or is the collateral damage of the privilege of finding a connection at all?
Sachs’ films understand intimacy and how it fuels and how it ruins us. How we crave it when we don’t have it; how we take advantage of it or even resent it when we do. Worst of all, for all of us trying to navigate both the landmines of relationships and splurge from the treasure chest that they can provide, what we want from intimacy is different for all of us. Even when you think you’ve found someone who is on the same page.
Passages is, in a way, a descendant of Mike Nichols’ Closer, filtered through Sachs’ less rigid worldview and a lens of queerness. The poison-dart cruelty, one of the most unsettling elements of Closer (because it was also one of the most relatable), is traded for comedy. But the unshakable feeling as a viewer is that, unpleasant as the experiences you are watching are and as much as you want to shake the characters back into sense and sanity, you relate to what you’re seeing.
Well, to a point. May we all get to have such hot sex.
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