“Passages” takes its name from a film-within-a-film that we get one glimpse of at the start of Ira Sachs’ latest wince-inducing romance. It doesn’t look very good — an airless, stylized period piece, the kind of movie Sachs would never make himself. Worse, its fictional director, Tomas (Franz Rogowski), is so fixated on imperceptible details, and so unable to articulate his desires, that he eventually explodes on set. “It’s not that you have to come down the staircase, you want to come down the staircase!” he rages, aggrieved that no one is able to read his mind.
Tomas is whiny, needy, petulant and selfish. (TikTok users could slap him with a dozen diagnoses or just settle on “toxic.”) He’d make a great reality show contestant, but here he’s wedged himself into a love triangle with his husband, Martin (Ben Whishaw), and his girlfriend, Agathe (Adèle Exarchopoulos). Viewers naïve enough to expect that an Ira Sachs movie might resolve happily will be disappointed.
Sachs has formed his own unconventional family. He and his husband, Boris Torres (an artist, as Martin sort-of is), share twins with the filmmaker Kirsten Johnson. “Passages” feels like Sachs and his longtime writing partner, Mauricio Zacharias, are questioning what his life would be if he’d gone about it all wrong: if he hadn’t been sensitive to others’ emotions, if he’d been slippery and noncommittal, if he’d made phonier films. Perhaps Tomas, performed by Rogowski with swivel-hipped, sulky charisma, is Sachs’ shadow self. But he’s like a lot of other people’s bad exes, too, which means that the bleakest moments often trigger a snort-laugh of schadenfreude at the fix his characters find themselves in.
The misery unfurls in a straight timeline of dramatic scenes that leap over the lived-in moments that make up a relationship. We only get fleeting seconds of Martin and Agathe without Tomas dominating the conversation, or lack of one, as he tends to mutely prod them into an extended sex scene. (The film initially received an NC-17 rating, but is now unrated.) As a result, we barely know his partners at all. Agathe, in particular, might look powerful in Khadija Zeggaï’s striking costumes, but she’s so vaguely written that she barely seems to exist when Tomas isn’t in the room. She reminded me of a moment in Caity Weaver’s 2016 GQ profile of Justin Bieber where she and the music superstar walk in on his future wife, Hailey, “doing nothing — no TV, no book, no phone, no computer, no music, no oil paints, nothing.”
Some of this indifference is deliberate. Sachs frames one talk between the spouses with Tomas’s body eclipsing Martin’s until he’s invisible; the camera reflects how little Tomas sees his partners, too. But capturing these truths leaves a void in the film. Exhausted (as we also become) by their fruitless, repetitive attempts to set boundaries, the wounded lovers reclaim their independence by receding so deeply into themselves that even Tomas can’t reach them anymore — and by that time, we’ve already given up.
Not rated. In English and French, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 31 minutes. In theaters.