Best Of Sundance 2023: Sexy, Sad Drama Passages Tackles The Messy Overlap Between Art And Life

America's largest indie film festival is upon us. Gayle Sequeira keeps track of the films that deserve a spotlight
Best Of Sundance 2023: Sexy, Sad Drama Passages Tackles The Messy Overlap Between Art And Life

A director pauses his shoot to berate an extra for walking down a staircase self-consciously. They go over the scene a few times, but the poor guy can’t seem to nail either the posture or the temperament of his character. The director loses his cool. “This is a transition moment, but we’re turning it into a huge drama moment,” he yells. This is Passages in a nutshell — in Ira Sachs’ drama, set during the transitory phase of uncertainty between a film’s wrap and its release, a director plunges headfirst into some off-set drama of his own making. The film set is simultaneously a place where real life isn’t supposed to spill over into the created fantasy, as the director reminds his cast, and a site that begins to chip away at some of the characters’ real-life illusions. 

When Tomas (Franz Rogowski), so prone to micromanaging every aspect of his productions, succumbs to the wild allure of messiness in his personal life and goes home with a crew member, Agathe (Adèle Exarchopoulos), Sachs films the start of their affair as a slow-burn seduction, rather than a heat-of-the-moment error. There’s a bath, a gently shut sliding door, a lingering glance. When Tomas returns home the next morning, there’s a resigned weariness to his husband’s posture that suggests this is nothing he hasn’t seen before. That his husband, Martin, is played by Ben Whishaw, one of cinema’s gentlest faces and the voice of Paddington Bear himself, only deepens the ache.

Best Of Sundance 2023: Sexy, Sad Drama Passages Tackles The Messy Overlap Between Art And Life
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For someone whose career hinges on noticing the details and assembling them into the larger picture, Tomas reveals himself to be remarkably self-involved and myopic. He spends the rest of the film pingponging between Agathe and Martin with the petulance of a filmmaker who sees people as an extension of the actors he can order around, bit players meant to serve his vision. His reluctance to commit is less a crisis spurred by the need for sexual gratification (though the film’s sex scenes are charged with enough eroticism to sustain that question), than by personal and artistic failings. Martin provides him with the stability and familiarity of a relationship, Agathe with the excitement he’s come to crave. Given that the end of his film has left Tomas bereft of purpose, he now can’t bring himself to script a definitive resolution to his relationship dilemmas either.  

It’s a slight premise, but Sachs treats his characters’ feelings as anything but. There’s a gravity to Martin’s wounded vulnerability and Agathe’s fragile wariness of her new relationship, its potential for heartbreak. Tomas, in his sheer fishnet tops, is just as transparent about his intentions, making unreasonable promises with the earnest intensity of someone who’s sure of what he means and just as sure of the opposite a minute later. There's a childlike quality to his cruelties, an obliviousness to his manipulations. Even when his behaviour becomes pitifully, pathetically predictable, it’s to Sachs’ credit that the film doesn’t feel repetitive. Snatches of dialogue convey entire histories.

But real life doesn’t follow a script. There are no segues to smoothen out the rough edges, a message in Passages that percolates from the unhappiness brewing between the three characters. In eschewing the precise control he exerts over his movies for the sloppy carelessness with which he treats his partners, Tomas becomes a cautionary tale. Anyone who centers themselves in the narrative might want to reconsider, Passages gently warns. Or wake up to discover they’re now all alone.

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