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The End of the Affair

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Guy Ferrandis/Courtesy of Sundance Institute

MOVIE REVIEW
Passages (2023)

Finally, a chaos bisexual. Tomas (the outstanding Franz Rogowski), a German movie director who lives and works in Paris, has just finished his latest film. At the wrap party he complains to a man at the bar that no one wants to dance with him. The random woman next to him overhears and offers. This is Agathe (the incredible Adèle Excharopoulos), a Frenchwoman whose friends worked on the film and who quietly, but with some satisfaction, has just dumped her boyfriend. Tomas grins and meets Agathe on the floor. As they dance, the man with whom Tomas was talking makes his goodbyes; we realize he is Tomas’s husband, the English Martin (a superb Ben Whishaw). Between Agathe and Tomas, one thing shortly leads to another. But when someone is as careless in their personal life as Tomas is, no path is ever straightforward.

Director Ira Sachs, who cowrote the script with Mauricio Zacharias, is interested in exploring what it’s like to be in a relationship with someone whose main love is themself. Tomas has the best of intentions at all times, but he’s also pathologically incapable of considering the needs of others. After the night with Agathe, he cycles home to Martin, walks through the door and immediately announces he slept with her. As Martin digests this upsetting information, Tomas actually pouts that Martin isn’t happy for him and wants them to discuss this together. As an act of thoughtlessness it’s just breathtaking, but Tomas is so single-minded it simply doesn’t occur to him anyone, much less the person he loves most in the world, could take offense. It’s a testament to Martin’s character that he doesn’t immediately murder Tomas, and a further testament to how well Martin knows his husband that he pulls himself together and dismisses the night as a standard end-of-project release. Tomas’s energies no longer have the film as an outlet, so it’s no surprise. This, of course, underestimates Agathe. And no one played by Ms. Excharopoulos can be lightly dismissed.

The character of Agathe has strong parallels to the character Ms. Excharopoulos played in “Blue Is the Warmest Color;” she is a teacher with a calm acceptance of her desires and an adult awareness of the consequences of playing adult games. It’s a very appealing persona; and Ms. Excharopoulos is one of the rare actors so skilled and deeply beloved that she can do whatever she wants (and she is still not yet 30). It is therefore a mild mistake to revisit the persona established at the beginning of her career, but it’s obvious why Mr. Sachs needed her. Agathe had to be so compelling that a sexual identity and a marriage could be unhesitatingly discarded for a night with her without a second thought. For Tomas Mr. Sachs needed an actor who could make this level of narcissism appealing enough for other people to tolerate. There is an unusual intensity in Mr. Rogowski, like a child engrossed in building a sandcastle on the beach. He has a skill of being present in his body that’s rare in current cinema, which is usually desire-free and uninterested in how our hungers manifest in our bodies.

The wild card is Martin. Over his career Mr. Whishaw has tended to play 98-pound weaklings, the kind of man other men underestimate and women either fan over or ignore. The choice of him as Q for the Daniel Craig Bonds, as the only man capable of going toe to toe with the super-assassin as an equal worthy of respect, was a fascinating choice, not least when it became quietly clear that Q and Mr. Whishaw were both gay. That gayness is not remotely in doubt in “Passages,” which contains a graphic and lengthy sex scene (shot by Josée Deshaies with the kind of discretion that reveals more than it shows) and more nudity than Mr. Whishaw’s entire previous career combined. It goes a long way to explain why Tomas simply cannot make up his mind. But all Martin, who manages a print studio and the artists within with a polite rod of iron, wants is a calm and quiet life. And Tomas’s sudden inability to let go of Agathe is a knife to the heart.

The movie contains a plot twist which is not really a surprise, but Tomas’s reaction to the twist is absolutely new. It’s also the action of a deeply selfish man. He cycles around Paris in a large brown fleece coat, making him for all the world look like an overstuffed teddy bear, but one which leaves giant messes in his wake that he disregards. If other people bring them to his attention, calmly or angrily, he dismisses them with a shrug and keeps right on his own path. Ms. Deshaies’s camera, which worked on location in real apartments, using many over-the-shoulder shots that frame the actors’ backs just as much as their faces, emphasizes how unpleasant this can be to deal with, and how much Martin and Agathe are sacrificing without Tomas caring. The way Agathe reacts to Tomas one night as he slips into bed next to her involves a major life decision, being made in silence, expressed only on her face. The later scene where two people meet in a bar, determined to be kind to each other in spite of everything, brings a weary maturity unusual in modern cinema. Of course, it’s all misplaced, as they both rapidly realize, but good manners go a long way, which Tomas doesn’t know.

It’s no surprise this movie played at Sundance Film Festival; this is exactly the kind of sexy European art-house movie Americans think of when those stereotypes are mentioned, all the more so because Mr. Sachs was born in Memphis, Tenn., and clearly knew exactly what points to press to get his desired outcome.

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