“Passages” is the story of Tomas (Franz Rogowski), a film director whose enthusiasm for life and fun is tempered by his husband, the quiet Martin (Ben Whishaw). When Tomas finds himself drawn to the exuberant Agathe (Adèle Exarchopoulos), he decides to leave his husband for her. But that’s only the start of a tangled web of relationships that sees the three still seeking solace in each other.
The film appears to detail how it will approach its story from the opening frame, with Tomas attempting to coordinate the direction of a scene, getting more and more irritated at the actor’s lack of interest in what’s being filmed. Within these first few minutes the audience learns all they need to know about Tomas: he’s overbearing and enjoys getting his way. It’s hard not to think that the entire reason he enjoys directing is because he can move people around like chess pieces, especially considering how he treats those around him he claims to love.
Rogowski’s performance as Tomas is fascinating to watch because for all his narcissism it’s hard not to get wrapped up in his performance. Whether that’s his casual first meeting with Agathe, culminating with the two getting as wrapped up in dancing as they, eventually, do with each other or his attempts to entice Martin into talking to him. But for every moment that he does something passing for nice, the character does eight more things that are terrible.
And the problem is, since Tomas is what passes for a protagonist in “Passages,” the lack of any insight into the other characters makes them feel underdeveloped, particularly Wishaw’s Martin. The British actor is very good as an English ex-pat living in France. Tomas’ abrupt leaving of him puts Martin in the position of having a possibly more even-keeled relationship with a writer named Amad (Erwan Kepoa Fale), if not for Tomas’ continuous need for Martin’s approval.
The back-and-forth between Martin and Tomas is interesting. As Martin tells Tomas after the latter confesses his affair with Agathe, “This always happens when you finish a film. You just forget.” It’s clear Martin has been in similar situations with Tomas, but we never get beyond that. The film, by focusing on the surface level, forces the audience to work without the transitional, shall we say, passages that often help them figure out who these people are. But that can be frustrating when it feels like Tomas’ character is sucking all the life out of scenes at the expense of other actors.
As great as Rogowski is to watch, though, “Passages” is all about Adèle Exarchopoulos, who turns in a better performance than she did in “Blue is the Warmest Color.” If Rogowski’s Tomas is pure immaturity and Martin is responsibility, the young Agathe finds herself somewhere in-between. The audience meets her wanting to have fun, and recently dumping her boyfriend in the process.
But by becoming part of Tomas’ world a heavy dose of responsibility gets dumped right in her lap. Exarchopoulos is just so magnetic that, where Whishaw’s character feels slight, Agathe feels like a full person even without knowing anything about her because of how she’s played. (Though the fact it takes 40 minutes to learn what her profession is….)
Much has been made about the film’s sex scenes, ridiculous considering there are less than a handful of sequences, all of which play as indicative to finding out how these characters utilize sex as a means of glossing over the flaws in their lives. An extended scene between Tomas and Martin seems to be where the NC-17 rating stems from — again, same-sex love scenes historically are rated harsher — but it’s such a passionate sequence that it’d be difficult to think of the movie without it.
“Passages” is a feature that no doubt will capture interest because of the rating. Though the depth of the film seems limited — and clocking in at 90 minutes, moves quickly — but the cast dazzles, particularly Exarchopoulos.