I love it when a movie drops you right in the middle of the story. There is no set-up or explanation; you have just become a part of a conversation or an activity that has already started. If it is done right, then you soon become a part of the movie’s world while you are still figuring out who’s who and what’s going on. Honestly, it’s actually quite fun and only enhances the quality of the entire movie experience. Ira Sach’s Passages opens with a director trying to make his actor do a scene right. The actor appears to be quite stiff, which effectively makes something as simple as coming down a staircase a herculean task. We soon find out that the actor, Martin, and the director, Tomas, happen to be a married couple. Martin is sort of awkward and keeps it himself, while Tomas is exuberant and assertive. And things are not okay between them. We don’t exactly know what has happened, but as the story moves forward, you realize that a backstory is not a necessity here.
The first fifteen minutes of Passages are quite jarring. Scenes are cut abruptly. And a lot is happening. At a party, Martin meets this young woman, Agathe. But it is Tomas with whom Agathe finds an instant connection. They laugh, they dance, and sparks fly. And we have a very unique love triangle, which eventually becomes sort of a quadrangle when Martin takes a liking to a super successful writer. In spite of all this going on simultaneously, the audience has no problem getting it. For that, we need to thank Sachs and his co-writer, Mauricio Zacharias, for their screenplay and the kind of precision they’ve shown. Not a single minute of the film gets wasted, and you never feel that you are getting bored, which is often the risk in films like this.
In fact, pulling off something like this in the drama genre is a helluva feat to achieve. In every other movie genre, you have weapons to fire with. But in drama, all you have are people and words. The possibility of your audience drifting off and starting to scroll their phones lurks around the corner. But such is not the case with Passages. The narrative draws you so close that you feel like a character in this world. And you find things very relatable, not to mention the film keeps surprising its audience. Just like in life, you don’t get to predict what happens next. There are scenes when you anticipate an ugly fight between Tomas and Martin, but nothing happens. Agathe, who initially comes off as someone who probably works in the media, is revealed to be a schoolteacher. It is actually funny to see her students asking about what’s going on in her life and, most importantly, whether or not she has a boyfriend.
The narrative of Passages flows like a river. The French setting works very well in its favor. Sachs, who is very much at the top of his craft, handles the nitty-gritties of modern-day relationships so well. There is not an iota of pretension in the film. The characters are people you would walk past on the street every day, or maybe someone you know. There is a lot of physical intimacy, which is not at all aesthetically pleasant, like the kind you usually see in the movies. The acting, as you would expect, is straight up phenomenal. Ben Warsaw and Adele Exarchopoulos are fantastic in the roles of Martin and Agathe, respectively. But it is Franz Rogowski who delivers “the performance” of the movie as Tomas, who is inarguably the most exciting character amongst the three.
Passages, in my opinion, is primarily a representation of different kinds of human characteristics and an exploration of the same. The film cleverly uses carefully constructed scenes to depict the nature of the characters. When Tomas meets the writer, Ahmad, for the first time, he gets immediately jealous of the latter’s success. Ahmad, despite being the author of a hugely successful debut novel, seems humble and kind, while Tomas keeps pushing him to see if he breaks. Tomas is a typical narcissist who behaves like the world is his oyster. In the first half of the film, though, Tomas does appear as a charmer. He is a red flag for sure, but he has this irresistible quality going on for him. But the film rightfully doesn’t glorify Tomas’ charming personality.
As the story progresses, both Martin and Agathe keep suffering, and the audience sees through the toxicity. The film, without uttering a single word, brings out the problematic aspect of Tomas’ character by using certain techniques. For example, Tomas tells Martin about having feelings for Agathe, and he practically demands that Martin be happy for him. Throughout the entire scene, the camera zooms in on Tomas’ head in such a manner that the entirety of Martin, who is sitting right behind him on the same bed, gets eclipsed. This works wonderfully as an implication of the fact that Tomas is full of himself. During a lunch with Agathe’s parents, a verbal argument breaks out between Tomas and Edith, Agathe’s mother. Tomas is not exactly at fault here. But soon, he abruptly declares that he doesn’t feel like continuing the conversation and leaves the table. The camera stays on the table and looks at Agathe, who looks really frustrated, understandably. It is Agathe on whom the argument is taking a toll, and this way, the film chooses to show the effect instead of the cause that we already know.
One might wonder why the film is called Passages. There can be more than one implication, but I suppose the term means moving from one place to another in terms of life here. All the characters are going through transitions and seeking something better. Martin is trying to break out of his toxic marriage with Tomas and find a healthy life for himself. Agathe is trying to find love and stability after a breakup. And Tomas is creating a mess by moving from one person to another. Whatever that is happening in between is what Ira Sach’s Passages is.