Review by Sean Boelman
Ira Sachs is one of the most acclaimed American independent filmmakers working today, so it’s only fitting that his newest film, Passages, would be one of the highlights of this year’s Sundance. A simple yet passionate romance, Passages thrives off of Sach’s strong direction and excellent performances from its ensemble.
The movie tells the story of a longtime gay couple whose relationship is put to the test when one of them has an affair with a woman. It’s a premise that sounds like it could be found in a soap opera, but in the adroit hands of Sachs, it manages to be something quaint yet utterly riveting at the same time.
What makes Passages so refreshing is the unorthodox approach it takes to the love triangle. Eschewing histrionics and big reveals in favor of a more quiet, humanistic approach to telling these stories. The events that would normally be presented as dramatic developments instead become events that simply happen in life.
The only real shortcoming of the film is that it doesn’t have as naturalistic of a flow as it seems to demand. The narrative has large gaps in time, and while it’s heavily implied that this is because those periods in the tumultuous love triangle weren’t particularly eventful, it also deprives certain scenes of a particular context.
Sachs’s character development in the movie is intriguing because it successfully positions itself in a plane of ambiguity. The characters behave in ways that are frustratingly selfish, yet Sachs lingers on the human emotions that motivate their actions in a way that is compelling, albeit purposefully not always empathetic.
The film is largely driven by the power of its three central performances. Franz Rogowski takes the lead here with a performance full of subdued emotion; however, his accent — particularly when speaking English — can be a tad distracting. Ben Whishaw’s performance is more reactive, but has plenty of moments that are captivating. Adèle Exarchopoulos doesn’t have as strong of a presence in the movie, but is great when she is on screen.
Sachs is also tremendously successful with how he shoots the film. One of the most impressive aspects of the movie is its use of intimacy and sexuality. Some of the sex scenes are shot in a way that are passionate and erotic, and others are rough and lustful. That Sachs is able to pull off such a delicate dichotomy is thoroughly impressive.
If it was made by anyone else, Passages would have been just another steamy love triangle, but Ira Sachs has managed to turn it into one of the most humanistic romances of the year. Audiences will be absolutely enamored by the quiet sensibilities of Sachs’s wonderful film.
Passages played at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, which ran January 19-29 in-person in Park City, UT and January 24-29 online.