Passages: On (Post)Modern Love

By Miruna Tiberiu

You’re in a dingy basement, painted in deep, muted blues and ochres. The camera moves languidly from conversation to conversation. Little by little, the event reveals itself; we are on the Parisian set of a film-within-a-film, also called Passages. Neurotic and eager to control everyone’s movements, the film’s director makes a poor young actor, clad in a camp period costume, walk up and down the stairs in painstaking detail, over and over again. “It’s not that you have to come down the staircase, it’s that you want to!” he exclaims exasperatedly. This director is called Tomas. We then follow his romantic endeavours for a year.

For an opening scene to set up the film’s fabric so well is an unbounded achievement. Director Ira Sachs reinvents the city of love in one fell swoop, dropping his characters into this realm of artificiality where a Baudelairean romanticised past – of flaneurs waltzing through life with the sole purpose of experiencing love and creating art from it – becomes the city of (post)modern love in the cinematic imaginary.

If Passages (2023) centres around one idea, it is that of desire. Needs left aside for the sake of wants. The film follows Tomas, a German film director living in Paris with his artist husband Martin (portrayed so poignantly by British national treasure Ben Whishaw). The former becomes involved with Agathe, a French primary school teacher who happens to work on his film set. What emerges is a study on love in the age of media artificiality, as the three pair up, break up, make up, and turn the focus of the romance away from the notion of couples and towards the refreshing realm of polyamory.

Tomas, Martin, and Agathe on the dance floor after wrapping up the film. Credits to the filmmaker and distributor.

Emerging from previous arthouse successes such as Forty Shades of Blue (2005) and Love is Strange (2014), Sachs cements himself as an expert on romance with his latest endeavour into the often confusing, but equally exciting, intricacies of contemporary love. The director has expressed in an interview that he wanted to make a film about ‘desire’; about all wants and needs in life, and what other can give towards their loved one’s desires; how desire communicates within a collective. At the root of all desires expressed in the film is love – that between life partners, that towards an unborn child, that which surpasses labels of sexuality, that towards the creative act. Rare is it for a film with such cold-blooded protagonists to ooze such warmth in return. No desire is antagonised or explained. It is just shown, as if the audience were passers-by on the street who overhear snippets of a couple having an argument, or walk past a marriage proposal, or see a parent pushing their child on the swings.

The portrayal of physical desire in film is equally reinvented. The film’s distributor, MUBI, has recently been praised by film lovers for its fervent defence against an initial NC-17 rating for the film, on account of its ‘explicit’ sex scenes, pushing instead to release the film uncut and unrated. We have them to thank for this. The film’s sex scenes are anything but gratuitous, and its actors, who opted to build a trust amongst themselves without the help of an intimacy coordinator, have created an exploration of desire that is wholeheartedly open, and real, to the film’s audiences young and old alike.

The true force that breaks through the screen is less the character of Tomas and more the force which drives Tomas’ actions, as well as those of the characters around him. Sachs’ character study is just that, refraining from antagonising ‘bad’ desire and praising the ‘good’, for in his contemporary realist microcosm, there is no such thing as a good-bad binary. Whilst he cheats and manipulates those he says he loves, Tomas is humanised with great conviction. Franz Rogowski’s portrayal of the character, which he has stated was aided by improvisation and trust-building with other actors and crew throughout the creative process, fleshes out Tomas to this effect.

We get to see him as terrified of loneliness, and eager to be seen, and appreciated – as an artist and a lover – to the point where he feels that he cannot live without this affirmation that he is ‘doing life the right way’. He is part of the Millennial-Gen Z cusp which breaks from previous generations’ outlooks on love – structured around marriage, gender, and professional constructs – but is simultaneously left to figure out what this ‘modern love’ looks like in the absence of this guidance. The film’s characters must make some sense of this existential dread that Sachs’ pressure-chamber atmosphere brings out. The torch has been handed to them, since they are no longer able to see love or desire through a Romantic lens.

Tomas after barging in on Martin, post-breakup. Credits to the filmmaker and distributor.

For the sheer amount of pain inflicted on each other, and the sheer amount of selfishness that often arises from Sach’s intimate study of love, the film’s unravelling of the key triad of relationships is refreshingly nuanced. You can be selfish and caring at the same time, Sachs shows. The spectator finds themselves thinking past an accumulation of pain released in a powerful closing sequence and back towards the precious rivulets of everyday life portrayed: a shared song from childhood or record played, a dinner cooked slowly, in cinematic real time, as conversations bubble and simmer throughout.

Or Martin’s attempted gesture of love, that for another’s loved one, as he hands Agathe a thoughtful gift for their unborn child. And further still, reciprocated – Agathe exchanging one last look, the most care she has shown for Martin thus far, after telling him that she has had an abortion and warning that Tomas has manipulated him once again, before she exits his life. The tinge of self-centredness is present in almost all these vignettes, and yet that doesn’t detract from their warmth.

Equally nuanced is the film’s exploration of queer experience, or perhaps its decided lack of centredness on the queer aspect. Martin and Tomas just happen to be queer, and Tomas’ discovery of desire for a woman is not a plot device driving any of his character development. Love is a universalising force here. Sachs does not claim to ‘pioneer queer cinema or hold up the torch in a battle towards greater visibility of non-normative relationship types such as the trio’s polyamory. It seems to be understood that the film’s characters do not see themselves necessarily defined by the labels that may be used to discover their sexualities. Such sexual segregations become futile. The film’s reception only cements its status in the Hall of Mirrors of contemporary arthouse classics, rather than the often-reductive pigeonholing of any film with queer characters into the ‘genre’ (since when is sexuality a genre?) of ‘LGBT+ cinema’. In this way, Passages perhaps marks the start of the golden age of queer art in the 21st century, whereby our work is treated as art as opposed to activism.

Martin and Tomas spending a night together after having broken up. Credits to the filmmaker and distributor.

So, Sachs’ drama, both quiet and exuberant, captures with vibrant accuracy the feeling of desire in everyday life during the 21stcentury. Refusing to leave us with any conclusions, the film’s opening sequence is interestingly mirrored in its last, marking a new beginning of sorts for Tomas. Dressed in the tuxedo he was supposed to wear to the Venice Biennale, where his film-within-a-film has been selected, Tomas finds himself instead collapsing in tears in the middle of a primary school corridor, after being rejected for good by Agathe. He cycles away into loneliness, in a breathtakingly intimate closing sequence shot in real time and in red-tinted close-up that can only be paralleled by Timothée Chalamet’s performance in the end credits of Call Me By Your Name (2017). Artifice becomes intertwined with the quietness of everyday life, and everything seems to have temporarily fallen apart. (Post)modern love is messy. So the characters of Passages must follow suit.

Passages is available to stream now on MUBI, alongside a selection of queer arthouse cinema.

Miruna Tiberiu is the Managing Editor of GAY45. She is a student at Cambridge University. Tiberiu has written for numerous publications, including The Cambridge Review of Books, and the Cambridge Language Collective. She is the co-founder and co-editor of Cambridge’s first all-queer magazine, Screeve. Tiberiu is currently long-listed for the International News Media Association (INMA)’s “30 Under 30” Awards 2023.

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