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Dan Webster reviews "Passages"

Film still of Franz Rogowski and Ben Whishaw in Passages (2023).
Passages, KNM/SBS Productions & Distribution, 2023.
Film still of Franz Rogowski and Ben Whishaw in Passages (2023).


Near the end of Passages, a film directed and co-written by the American filmmaker Ira Sachs, a door slams so solidly that it serves as an actual punctuation to the scene in which it occurs. And since it precedes an emotional meltdown portrayed by the movie’s protagonist, and actually elicits that meltdown, it could be seen as a climactic statement for the film itself.

That character is Tomas (played by the German actor Franz Rogowski), a supremely self-centered man who treats a pair of intimate relationships as if they were peopled by the actors in one of his films. It is during the shooting a scene in a film that Tomas is directing, in fact, that we first get a glimpse both of how he approaches his art and what he demands of those involved in it.

Insisting that an actor not just walk down a staircase but walk down as if he actually has a desire to, Tomas becomes increasingly emphatic that the scene play out exactly the way he wants. His problem, it turns out, is that—in real life, if not in art—he can’t tell the difference between his own selfish fantasies and the emotional needs of others; can’t tell or, more likely, doesn’t care to.

One of his intimate partners is Martin (played by the English actor Ben Whishaw), a mild-mannered printer with whom Tomas has had a longtime, live-in relationship. It’s clear from the beginning, though, that Tomas doesn’t cater to anything, not to mention anyone, other than his own wishes. When they meet up in a club, for example, and Martin doesn’t want to dance to the pulsating music that fills the place, Tomas doesn’t hesitate to take up with Agathe (played by the French actress Adèle Exarchopoulos).

And when Martin does finally join in, the stage has been set: Agathe, who has just exited a relationship with a man who shows signs of neediness, now stands squarely in Tomas’ sights. She seems to be thinking that this is a man who knows what he wants. But what exactly does he want? It seems pretty much everything. Because after the first night he spends with Agathe, Tomas returns to the apartment he shares with Martin and announces, even seemingly to the point of excitement, that he has slept with a woman.

And he insists that Martin—who obviously has endured such torments before—listen to him talk about the experience. To his credit, Martin—patiently, though he’s obviously hurt—shuts Tomas off by saying, on his way out of the apartment, that this always happens when Tomas finishes a film. And, basically, that he’ll get over it. Ah, but will he this time?

Pretty soon Tomas and Agathe are involved, and all too soon afterward Tomas is professing his love for Agathe. Which begins a musical-chairs kind of situation with Tomas leaving Martin and moving in with Agathe but—shades of Brokeback Mountain—never able to quit the man who knows him better than anyone, and yet who loves him in spite of it… until he no longer can.

The question that Sachs never openly addresses is: why should we, the audience, care? Our sympathies can certainly be directed toward Martin. They can even be directed toward Agathe, who unwittingly falls for what she thinks she sees in Tomas. But Tomas himself? What value is there in witnessing the dissolution of someone’s life, even the life of someone who deserves it?

It’s not as if other movies haven’t revolved around loathsome or troubled characters. The genre of film noir was built around the kind of social outcasts who so desperately want something—money or love, and often both—that they get caught up in horrendous offenses and suffer, in the end, the loss of everything. But besides several scenes of raw, graphic sex, all Passages focuses on is a character whose desperation has no larger cultural import. He’s merely a self-serving specimen of personal privilege.

What works in Passages are the performances, especially those of Whishaw and Rogowski. Exarchopoulos isn’t given much to do, though her Agathe does eventually wake up to her own sense of self. Whishaw, who has starred in everything from Bond films (No Time to Die) to Disney musicals (Mary Poppins Returns), gives Martin just the right air of tentative yearning, until he, too, comes to realize his own inherent strength.

It is Tomas, though, around whom the film revolves. And while Rogowski has that ineffable screen quality of being impossible not to watch, what we’re forced to watch is a narcissist ultimately drowning in a pool of his own tears.

For Spokane Public Radio, I’m Dan Webster.


Movies 101 host Dan Webster is a senior film critic for Spokane Public Radio and a blogger for

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  • On this week’s show, Dan Webster, Nathan Weinbender, and Mary Pat Treuthart will be discussing a pair of films that focus on characters who, through their actions, create their own hellish personal landscapes. First up is “Passages,” a film featuring a movie director who can’t control his emotions, followed by the 20th-anniversary release of Chan-wook Park’s “Oldboy,” a film that gives new meaning to the notion of long-simmering revenge.