The party is over when “Passages” begins, though you wouldn’t know it from where Martin (Ben Whishaw) and Tomas (Franz Rogowski) are standing — at the center of a wrap celebration for the latter’s latest film as a director where the cast and crew have taken to the dance floor. For the sake of appearances, Tomas considers dragging himself out there himself despite an grueling production, but he won’t be joined by his partner who has already put his own exhaustion aside from a long day at work just to show up at the soiree, content to sit at the bar where he tries to make conversation with Agathe (Adele Exarchopoulos), sensing she could use a kindly ear as she appears forlorn. The fact that she’d rather dance than talk is indicative of the romantic roundelay to come in Ira Sachs’ wonderfully frisky new drama where passion isn’t hard to come by, but an alignment with someone else’s is with its central trio are all at an age where they’d like to have a little more direction.
A great detail among many in the film is in the meticulous costume design of Khadijah Zeggai, who not only comes up with eye-catching garb for the fashionable characters, from skintight crop tops to bodacious scarlet dresses, but all add the suggestion of whether even after the question of can they still pull it off, if they actually should as they look to settle down. Martin’s instincts weren’t wrong when thinking something was amiss with Agathe, who is eventually revealed to be leaving a relationship, though he couldn’t know he might soon be out of himself upon leaving after she and Tomas step out onto the dance floor, both swept up in excitement that neither can be sure is for each other, but certainly the idea of something new. Likewise, Martin’s resulting disappointment can’t entirely be chalked up to the idea of ending things with Tomas specifically after a decade-plus together when their flame has clearly waned, but the comfort that such a long-term relationship brings and the envy that he’s now with someone else.
Although Sachs mercifully avoids navel-gazing, part of the devious fun of “Passages” is in his choice to make Tomas a director, using the unquestioned cover of endless hours in the editing room on his latest film to try and keep both relationships alive without one partner being the wiser and attempting to manipulate everyone in his life as he would on a set. Any question why either Martin or Agathe would put up with his antics are answered by Rogowski’s magnetic appeal as the rascally scoundrel, professionally trained to know how to get what he wants and Sachs’ habit of bringing international ensembles together not only yields an irresistible and truly world class cast but works to particularly marvelous effect when cultural differences appear to be both part of the attraction and the issues that crop up in holding onto what they want while accommodating a partner, having perspectives shaped by different places and traditions in ways that they may not even be aware of until they come into conflict with one another.
“Passages” would be engaging enough if it only concerned the discord amongst the three characters at hand, but looking inward, the dynamics are even more fraught when they involve Tomas’ fluid sexuality, perhaps more compatible with Martin because his primary attraction is to men, but not specifically this man, who yearns to be one-half of a longtime married couple, which would seem to be what Agathe grew up with as a goal herself in a convention-bound French family, yet now rebels against to some degree in what ways she can. There is more than we could ever know about each of them when they are discovering new things about themselves all the time, which allows Sachs and longtime co-writer Mauricio Zacharias to lace the film with a beguiling sense of surprise. In capturing people running up against the wall of trying to have it all, the duo demonstrates at least the story of their lives actually can.
“Passages” will screen at the Sundance Film Festival on January 24th at 9:30 pm at the Megaplex Theaters at the Gateway in Salt Lake City, January 25th at 9:15 pm at the Eccles in Park City, January 27th at 5:30 pm at the Holiday Village Cinemas 1 in Park City, January 28th at 8:30 pm at the Egyptian Theatre in Park City, January 29th at 3 pm at the Rose Wagner Center in Salt Lake City.