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'Passages:' Stripping a Narcissist of His Power

If you’re like me and think that Franz Rogowski is one of the finest actors working today, you’ve likely been anticipating the streaming release of Ira Sachs’ Passages. The movie has been teased incessantly on Mubi’s social media pages since its debut at Sundance seven months ago. Rogowski is one-third of the film’s love triangle, the latter two roles filled by fellow European festival darlings Adèle Exarchopoulos and Ben Whishaw. The promise of a genuinely erotic lovers’ spat between these stars was likely a big reason the film got its extra push, along with American-born Sachs' quietly impressive track record in the realm of domestic dramas. Finally, with only about a month’s notice, Passages made its journey onto Mubi.

Rogowski plays Tomas, a fastidious filmmaker with an impulsive streak. His chic dressing habits complement his stylish Parisian apartment, where he lives alongside his husband, Martin (Whishaw), a reserved printmaker. Their differences are apparent from the get-go; the very first scene of the movie depicts Tomas fretting over an actor’s simple entrance in his film, and the second shows him being rejected by Martin at a bar when he asks him to dance. Martin is tired; he’s had a long day, so he leaves early. Tomas then makes an instinctive decision: hook up with a woman, Agathe (Exarchopoulos), whom he dances with shortly thereafter.


Agathe is aware that he’s married, but he’s a grown-up, and she is too. Tomas casually admits this affair to Martin, who is willing to look past it, but Tomas and Agathe’s fling nonetheless persists. Tomas floats between his husband and his liaison at his leisure, rudimentarily accepting Martin’s boundary of no longer living together while sustaining an apparently growing affection for Agathe. Nonetheless, the parts are not equal. Something in Tomas’s presence suggests a halfway commitment, even as Agathe begins to accept his love as true.

Tomas, by all means, is a narcissist. He is perpetually glib, and self-righteous when that glibness backfires. Rogowski’s performance is that of a man lost in his own image of himself. His status as a foreigner in France is seemingly by design, and it’s also likely no coincidence that he and fellow foreigner Martin found each other in the first place. The condition of “outsider” only increases one's inclination to assume a facade. Whereas Martin is content with the art of his occupation, Tomas’ recognition as a major figure in his industry only breeds greater ego.


It’s a classic dilemma: charismatic personalities avoiding accountability. Artistic spirits who fancy themselves to be on a journey for self-discovery while treating everyone around them like garbage. But Agathe, as we learn later on, isn’t quite “in” on that type. She’s an elementary school teacher, close to her parents. This is not to indicate naivety; she’s a fully realized woman. Before she and Tomas meet, she is publicly dismissive of an ex whom she also left with little explanation. Perhaps that “cruelness” she perceives in herself is what draws her to Tomas in the first place. He is confident and contemporary, and not particularly doting. He has his moments – all manipulative people do – but her attraction to him is likely circumstantial of his immediate, locked-in interest (the night at the bar, when he decided to get back at Martin for the moindrest of social offenses).

A particularly telling scene is when Agathe introduces Tomas to his parents. He waltzes in quite late, sporting a mesh crop top. They are immediately suspicious of the seriousness of the relationship, as well as his sexuality.


As it is no doubt already a major talking point for the film, I’ll digress: Sachs’ (incorrectly classified) NC-17 portrayal of sexuality in the film is more situational than representative. Tomas’ bisexuality is not a matter of direct speculation, but rather an emblem of Martin’s feeling of betrayal that the affair is being explored so late in their marriage. The film’s main two graphic, one-take sex scenes do not show Tomas’s face during the act. Once the sex actually starts, Tomas disappears. The viewer is not really able to witness his connection to the other person, and one might think that he’s not really partaking in it for any other reason than his own pleasure. Even post-coitus, whilst Tomas drops some devastating information to his ex, his back is turned from the camera.

I think these blocking and editing choices are deliberate: Tomas is a physical presence, and most of his words are empty vessels to get him into the physical situation. His relationship with Agathe is almost automatic, and over time, he bores. During the third act’s climax (no pun intended), Sachs chooses only to depict Tomas’ cogent foreplay – the validation he receives by seducing his estranged Martin is a bedding that requires a more aggressive front.


Tomas’ decisions are driven by the moment’s whims, and his urgency to secure the upper hand. Although Agathe’s parents were likely approaching him from an out-of-touch, judgmental perspective on homosexual men, they were the only people who dared to question his intentions to his face. Martin is too meek to push him away, and Agathe is swept up in wanting to see the best in his admission of love. However, Agathe has her parents. Martin ends up taking a new lover. Tomas has no one, and he only wields power when his company is isolated.

The only way to strip a narcissist of his power is to cut him off completely. This is the harsh reality of Sachs’ message. As is stylish with Western European dramas, the privacy of home life is emphasized, and Tomas is game to keep up illusions where it counts. But he also can’t help himself from playing both fiddles. His self-absorption is his inevitable ruin, and eventually, his dupes secure a bleak victory: he is banished.


Passages is streaming on Mubi.


-Lydia

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