With Passages, American indie filmmaker Ira Sachs builds on the not-unexpected Euro-arthouse move he made with 2019’s underwhelming Cannes competition swing Frankie, which threw a number of French thespians together with some UK actors and one American (Greg Kinnear) for a vacation cum somber family gathering on the southern Portuguese seaside. If that film suggested that the director behind such emotionally nuanced and location-specific New York stories as 2014’s Love Is Strange and 2012’s Keep the Lights On might not have the same firm grasp of socio-cultural markers in a foreign country, Passages – which takes place entirely in Paris, and features another variously European cast – doesn’t do much to convince otherwise. But more distressingly, Sachs’ latest presents damning evidence of a further decline in the overall distinctiveness of this once-exciting auteur’s aesthetic.
Watch Sachs’ excellent 1997 debut The Delta today and be immediately struck by the tactility of the visuals, the intimate compositions, and the raw feel for movement that define that very low-budget indie. Even the later, more conventionally plotted Forty Shades of Blue (2005) and Keep the Lights On still manage to organize their respective turbulent relationship dramas around clear and cleverly executed visual strategies: With the former, the alienating spatial dynamics that define the interiority of Diana Korzun’s trophy wife are contrasted against her husband (Rip Torn) and his commanding and central presence in the frame; the latter’s self-consciously painterly Super 16 images serve as self-reflexive commentary on processing painful memories through the lens of art.
Sachs’ most distinctive filmic signifiers – his askew framing, vérité approach to sound recording, and favoring of film grain texture – started to fall away sometime around 2014’s Love Is Strange, replaced by a more standard cinematic grammar to match generally more straightforward narratives. For a while, there was still enough specificity in the way that Sachs rendered his chosen milieu to keep his films interesting. Conversely, the Parisian setting of Passages could really be replaced with any European city, and maybe even New York, this while its paint-by-numbers, Euro-arthouse form — consisting of a lot of antiseptic long take master shots — registers the clear influence of contemporary French directors like Olivier Assayas, Andre Techine, and Mia Hansen-Løve.
As he did with Frankie, Sachs assembles an ensemble of well-respected actors who all speak different native languages (Germany’s Franz Rogowski, France’s Adèle Exarchopoulos, and Britain’s Ben Whishaw) so that he can largely direct them to speak in English, and never demonstrates the slightest interest in exploring the cultural nuances of these characters nor how those might affect the ways in which they relate to each other. One could argue that going down that path might have taken away from what seems to be the film’s real focus — exploring the queer sexual politics of its central threesome (or foursome, if you count the handful of scenes with newcomer Erwan Kepoa Falé). But that would require seeing something here other than the trendy indulgence of toxic relationship maneuvering and jilted jealousies that we’ve seen in plenty of better movies — including Sachs’.
A comparison to a past Sachs film is invited right at the start of Passages, as we’re introduced to Tomas (Rogowski), who like Thure Lindhardt’s loosely autobiographical character in Keep the Lights On, is a filmmaker. Tomas is married to Martin (Wishaw), but quickly turns a dancefloor flirtation with middle school teacher Agathe (Exarchopoulos) into a full-blown affair, all the while taunting Martin with frequent visits to the flat that the two still sort of share, often for sex. There’s eventually a The Mother and the Whore-esque cohabitation turn, but it’s not so much an olive branch to polyamory as a further advancement of the selfish manipulation that Tomas can’t seem to help but bring to any relationship, leaving this film feeling like it’s hitting the same notes for all of its 90 minutes.
In addition to the staid and tasteful visual approach here, amounting to some of Sachs’ most anonymous filmmaking to date, the writing is also a low for he and co-writer Mauricio Zacharias — their fifth feature together. The pair have proven capable of locating small, revealing moments that expose the natures and histories of their characters and speak to broader trends in their relationships, especially in Keep the Lights On. But that film spanned decades, allowing its drawn-out, vignette-like structure to support the effort of isolating stray moments in time. Passages’ love-triangle narrative is more condensed and minimally developed, which leaves scenes like the one where Tomas and Agathe sing a capella to each other feeling like a missed opportunity to better define the contours of that relationship. Then again, when those characters do talk, in the next scene, it’s through choreographed pillow talk lines like “I think I’m falling in love with you” and “You say that when it works for you.”
Some of the awkward scripting feels like a side effect of these actors being made to speak English, but there’s also a tendency toward speechifying emotional platitudes that cuts against any inclinations of realism that this film tries to capture. Passages is both too obvious in its scene-to-scene writing and not clear enough in the broader terms of what it’s trying to say: It’s not necessarily about bisexuality, at least not if we’re to read Tomas’ relationship with Agathe as more a product of his neediness and narcissism, and the introduction of the cohabitation plot comes too late and ends too quickly to meaningfully examine that dimension either. Sachs has cast three of the most popular international actors you could get in a movie right now and wrote them a thin and exasperatingly familiar acting exercise full of emotional exhibitionism. That — plus some chic dance scenes and truly exceptional sweater fashion — may be enough to keep Sachs’ European sojourn rolling, but we’re a long ways away here from this filmmaker’s most revealing and conceptually exciting relationship studies.
DIRECTOR: Ira Sachs; CAST: Franz Rogowski, Ben Whishaw, Adèle Exarchopoulos; DISTRIBUTOR: MUBI; IN THEATERS: August 4; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 31 min.
Originally published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 5.