Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Dec 21, 2023 8:30 am 
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Messy triangle; neat movie

The Irish Times calls it "torrid," the Washington Post "sensuous and stylish." It is all that, I guess, cooler and more with it than Sach's other films, with the fashionable "it" boy Franz Rogowski and the cool Ben Whishsw and Adèle Exarchopoulos, and above all, set in Paris, where the American director Ira Sachs seems to live at the moment (like Fred Wiseman?). No; a June festival bio says "Presently, Sachs lives in Quito, Ecuador, with his husband, painter Boris Torres, their two children, Viva and Felix, and their children’s moms, Tabitha Jackson and Kirsten Johnson." Complicated, like this story of madcap sexual experimentation and bisexuality gone askew.

So as Passages begins, this asshole German gay director, Tomas (Rogowski, acting in English throughout here), wraps a film and impulsively starts up an affair with a French school teacher, Agathe (Exarchopoulos). His husband Martin (Whishaw) says he always does this after a film and it'll blow over. But it doesn't blow over. Somehow, after a couple of couplings between Agathe and Tomas, which seem more enthusiastic on his side than hers, all of a sudden Tomas is moving out of his flat with Martin and Martin is talking about selling the house in the country. Seems a bit premature. All Martin is left with is the large brick of a book by a black writer they met recently at a café, whom Martin thought pretentious. But it's good, Martin says. "It's well written." It turns out Martin's not just reading the guy's book. Ahmad (Erwan Kepoa Falé) is a very well-put-together black man, whom we get to see semi-nude - several times.

There's a scene where Tomas masturbates Agathe - after which she rushes off to teach her grade school class, late; but Exarchopoulos says it was singing on camera made her feel most vulnerable. Anyway because it's got sex (a 3-minute boisterous anal gay fuck!), the MPA gave this film an NC-17 rating; MUBI released it unrated instead. The rating is an anachronism for multiple reasons, Sam Adams says in Slate, for one thing because "Twenty-first-century cinema, particularly in the U.S., has become overwhelmingly sexless." Well, not in Passages. The kids in the class notice Agathe has a glow and say she must be in love. Hey, they're French kids.

Rogowski projects sexiness or excitement because he's energetic and awkward and so unpredictable. David Canfield in Vanity Fair says Tomas in Passages is the actor's "most explosive and delicate performance yet." But haywire too: his hairlip and lisp seem worse, and he wears a succession of awful clothes, flexible knits with odd patterns printed on them, bare midriffs. Ugh.

"Do you plan to stay for long?" Agathe says, when he brings his boxes. "Very long," he says. "It's not just for storage?" she asks. "Of course it's for storage," Tomas replies. Are the actors just making this up? But while there is going to be a lot of painful drama, the film has a madcap, almost comic quality that's a lark, a break from the seriousness of Sachs' other films and the lived-in, sometimes tormented relationships they depict. Maybe it's Paris; his version of being European.

But while Sachs may be playing more freely and with more exotic pieces, he's playing with assurance a familiar game, a love triangle. And he sets up the basics so firmly here that however he sequences the moves, somehow he can't go wrong. With a succession of short scenes he gives us some nice twists and turns. In nearly every scene, Tomas tries to change the rules. For a while it works for him, until it doesn't. It's fun to watch - though surely it wouldn't be fun to live through.

Soon the impulsive Tomas longs for the "boring" longtime companionship of Martin, who "knows me very well," and so, as Canfield puts it, sets "a fraught and heated love triangle in motion." Tomas never gives up Martin (he's supremely impulsive and self-serving). He gets Agathe pregnant and tells Martin they will have a kid now, as Martin haslong wanted; and now and again he has sex with Martin too, like at the country place with other people and Agathe there. (Awkward.) After Tomas talks about "their' kid this way, Martin breaks up with Ahmad. But after Tomas leaves Agathe alone in bed at the country place for the boisterous, even noisy bed play with Martin, next day, Agathe has had it, and makes Tomas leave her off to be alone. Her mother, Édith (Caroline Chaniolleau), here and once earlier provides a voice of bourgeois good sense. She's a valuable corrective, a sample of what ordinary, stable people are like. It's checkmate for Tomas, I fear.

Sachs winds up this wild relationship craziness neatly. Happily, he doesn't take three hours to show this impulsive man has upended three lives. You can say Passages doesn't go into great depth, but these are events in lives that are pretty deep. And when people make this kind of a mess of their lives, it can all happen pretty fast. Though this is a protagonist who doesn't know how to live his life at all, with the filmmaker we feel like we're in very good hands. Rogawski, whose "taut intensity" - which was different - I spoke of in Christian Petzold's mysterious Transit, holds center stage very well here with wild unpredictability whose energy drives this surprisingly well controlled and enjoyable movie.

French Canadian cinematographer Josée Deshaies gives the middle-distance shots a quiet, painterly look with soft colors; it satisfyingly helps tamp down the melodrama. So does the restrained largely diegetic use of music.

Passages, 91 mins., debuted at Sundance Jan. and the Berlinale Feb. 2023.Now online multiple platforms (Vudu, Apple), free on Amazon Prime. Metacritic rating: 79%.

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