queer cinema

The Sexy Indie Film Blowing Up the Group Chat

Photo: SBS Productions

This story contains light spoilers about the film Passages.

Franz Rogowski spends a lot of time in Ira Sachs’s latest film, Passages, with his back to the camera, blocking his scene partners from view like a solar eclipse. As the provocative filmmaker Tomas, he sits in the foreground at the end of a bed he has just shared with his husband, Martin (Ben Whishaw), lamenting Martin’s inability to support his newfound desires for a more fluid, open relationship. “All I’m saying is you could help me … by being with me. By being patient,” he says as Martin is partially hidden from view, engulfed by Tomas’s physical and emotional presence.

It’s clear that “being patient” is nearly all Martin has done for much of their relationship, so when, at the start of the film, Tomas comes home giddy to share the details of a sexual encounter he’s just had, Martin is at once dejected and unsurprised. “This always happens when you finish a film,” he says placatingly after a short, fiery argument. But this time, it really is different: Tomas has had sex with a woman and has discovered a lust lying beneath the surface. His affection for Agathe (Adèle Exarchopoulos) is steeped in eroticism from the moment they meet; she’s a guest at the wrap party for his latest film shoot and dances with him — bodies close, breathing heavy — after Martin rejects Tomas’s offer to dance. A love triangle ensues; Agathe and Martin are locked in Tomas’s orbit.

As the Barbenheimer glow begins to wear off and the ongoing WGA and SAG strikes delay the release of upcoming blockbusters, independent and foreign films are finding unexpected success in their opening weekends at the box office. Passages is one of those films; its hot, messy drama has made it the sleeper hit of the summer, tearing up the group chats of cinephiles and normies alike. As Justin Chang writes for NPR, it’s “the intimacy of Passages that makes Sachs’ characters so compelling and so insistently alive.” This intimacy encompasses the close, emotional relationships between the characters as well as the film’s sexiness: “I wanted to make a horny film,” Sachs told the Film Stage.

The tangling of emotions and desire in Passages is tricky yet undeniably erotic, and Sachs’s astute unpacking of these relationship dynamics reminds us of the power of sex in cinema — something that indeed needs reminding. Unlike the erotic thrillers of the ’80s and ’90s that have been making a comeback recently, this century’s more chaste offerings, or total lack of sex scenes, are now more common onscreen. But while Sachs’s film fizzes with erotic charge, it also complicates sex and its purpose in Tomas’s relationships through a canny examination of male narcissism. Tomas is egotistical and insensitive in his pursuit of both lovers — yet, like all great fuckboys, these traits somehow make him more irresistible.

Although Sachs himself is not concerned with the so-called sex-scene discourse that riles up Twitter at least once a month (“Does anyone really think that there shouldn’t be sex in cinema?” he asks me over Zoom), Passages might be a film that could annihilate that sentiment for good. Here, sex is profoundly sexy; it’s also deeply sad at times and explicitly used as a tool of manipulation. It’s the inciting incident of the film, which was slapped with an NC-17 rating (until Sachs and Mubi, the film’s distributor, decided to release it as unrated), and the vehicle for Tomas to indulge in his narcissistic tendencies. It also leads to some of the film’s most challenging questions: Can an open relationship really work if one party is allowed to keep breaking all the rules? Were the rules even fair to begin with? As one Letterboxd review of the film reads, “unsure if W or L for the poly agenda.”

Some viewers have admitted to their instant recognition of themselves within Passages, and it seems like many people’s reactions to Tomas’s whims can be placed in one of two camps: They’ve either been a Tomas or been with one. His impulsiveness is both alluring and repulsive, like pulling at a snag in a sweater (or, if you’re Tomas, one of your many fine-mesh skin-baring crop tops). “Tomas is the perfect scapegoat for us to live out our glorious, immature self-important fantasies,” wrote one Letterboxd reviewer; “I’ve had to deal with people like Rogowski is depicting too many times in my life to find this in any way funny,” said another. Whether or not you can empathize with Tomas, it remains clear that sex is integral to what goes on between him, Martin, and Agathe and the narrative structure of the film.

It’s implied that Tomas has been granted a certain freedom before in his relationship with Martin (a more typically British, stoic type, afraid of confrontation), but his tryst with Agathe (French, more relaxed in this unlabeled, open situation) grows into something serious and shakes whatever foundations he and Martin had set for each other. But is this such a negative development for Martin and Tomas in their relationship? Richard Brody writes in The New Yorker that “there’s something innocently pacific and constructive about the furies that emerge from Tomas’s guileless candor and impulsive ardor,” suggesting that Tomas’s affair creates space for a more positive kind of change in their lives. Other reactions to Tomas have been stronger: “Detestable,” “terrible,” and “least likable protagonist I’ve seen in years” are recurring sentiments online.

While the poly agenda might not come out unscathed, Passages is certainly not a total indictment. There is a sense that Tomas, a fragile figure himself, truly is in need of Martin’s patience and acceptance. His hope that Martin and Agathe might agree to some kind of family structure with him at the center is in some ways a selfish request, but it’s also a fairly progressive one. Agathe’s parents, while understandably concerned for their daughter, then seem archaic in their grilling of Tomas when they meet in a key scene, unable to understand how Tomas could shift freely from his marriage to a man to his relationship with Agathe.

There are also moments of real tenderness and love in the film, particularly during sex. Sachs is at once deliberate and free in his depiction of it; the camera remains static for much of each sex scene in the film, finding one particular space and observing how the actors’ bodies fall in and out of it. The balance between structure and more liberated movement not only captures these intimate moments with beauty, affording them an almost painterly framing, but it also speaks to the matter-of-factness of sex as part of a relationship. To move the camera, to roam their bodies with a lens, would feel invasive in contrast but would also be a rejection of the everyday, often unglamorous, nature of sex. “My approach is to be in the room but not in the act,” Sachs explains. “The camera has the privilege of being inside the space with two people but not between them.”

The length of the sex scenes is a key part of their eroticism — the viewer’s gaze lingers on bare skin, lost in the rhythms of their bodies. “I intended those scenes to stretch the capacity for the audience to be patient. They are scenes of duration, and shots of duration, and I think that inflects the rest of the film in a really conscious way,” the director adds. But given how easily Tomas’s behavior turns sour, Passages really excels when these moments quickly fill with dread.

In a key scene toward the end of the film, as Tomas attempts to make his ideals of a progressive yet wayward family work between the three of them, Agathe listens to the sounds of Tomas and Martin in bed together. A few hours later, Tomas leaves a sleeping Martin and crawls into bed with Agathe. It tells Agathe everything she needs to know: that she is unprepared and unwilling to engage in this kind of relationship and that Tomas is toying with them both under the guise of love, even if, for him, it has some semblance of truth. As Kyle Turner, a film critic and the author of The Queer Film Guide, suggests, “The sex scenes that we normally consume in film and TV are, I think, supposed to be cathartic experiences. In Passages, there was, at least for me, this reverberation of Something bad is going to happen.

Yet, Sachs says, “I don’t see anyone as being a victim in this film. Choices are made, but I do think the power dynamic shifts continually.” It does seem to pivot most often in Tomas’s favor, however, and as a filmmaker, the character is skilled at harnessing that power, too. Agathe and Martin seem to become cast members in his own self-directed life saga; it’s pertinent that the film he is finishing as Sachs’s film opens is called Passages itself as one of Tomas’s directorial roles folds into another, more personal one. It also gives Tomas an edge of cruelty, a frequent trope for bisexual characters. “There’s definitely a long history with regard to bisexuals who are scheming or mean or duplicitous,” Turner explains. See, for example, Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct: “She’s a full-fledged killer.”

Many bisexual characters throughout film history, Turner adds, “generally ended up within a heterosexual pairing by the end of the film.” In Passages, there is no “return to normativity” as one would expect. Instead, Turner says, “What is relatively unique about Passages is that all of Tomas’s destructive behavior really forces him to be alone.”

Perhaps there’s a part of Tomas that truly loves both of his partners, at least in the sense that he couldn’t bear to let either one go. There’s certainly a part of him that feels that his liberated rejection of monogamy is a kind of social good, that his vision of a future in which they exist as a family throuple is a successful one. But there’s also an undeniable sense of his own self-importance, his own pursuit of happiness outweighing the harm he knows he has the power to cause others, and that seems to be what viewers who want to chastise Tomas for his behavior are latching on to. Rogowski, in his naturalistic and considered performance, is adept at holding all of these conflicts and selfish impulses together. He moves through the film like water, filling up spaces (or the holes in Martin’s and Agathe’s self-esteem) before slipping away again. There is little for his partners to do but capitulate to his whims, lost in their own desire for him.

Passages sits in a thorny, tantalizing space of eroticism and suffering. The “something bad” does ultimately happen over and over for Martin and Agathe, but part of the film’s uneasy pleasure lies in the push and pull between what they know is best for them and the lust they can’t escape. In most of my conversations about the film with friends and colleagues, everyone comes away feeling divided over Tomas, but they all seem to agree that an open arrangement probably works best when the terms are clearly laid out from the start. It’s understandable that a relationship could feel doomed when one person attempts to open it up years into a serious, monogamous coupling, unless both parties are on the same exact page. (Tomas and Martin clearly were not.) Within Tomas’s character, too, Sachs muddies the waters — is his wish for this newfound family so wrong, his nonconformity such a problem? Yet, as the director says, “you don’t get a free pass because you have progressive ideals”; Tomas’s freewheeling carelessness for his partners’ hearts is the real obstruction to a successful future for them all.

The Sexy Indie Film Blowing Up the Group Chat