In writer-director Ira Sachs’s 2014 charmer Love Is Strange, John Lithgow and Alfred Molina play a long-term couple whose same-sex marriage causes one of them to lose their job, temporarily forcing them apart. It’s a sweet-natured affair that won the hearts of audiences and critics alike, with the American Association of Retired Persons delightfully citing it as the “best grownup love story” of the year.
There’s a similar bittersweetness at the heart of Sachs’s latest gay marriage story (co-written with regular collaborator Mauricio Zacharias), although this time it’s wedded to a rather more candid portrayal of physical and emotional intimacy. Franz Rogowski and Ben Whishaw are brilliantly believable as Tomas and Martin, a German film-maker and English graphic artist respectively, whose relationship has weathered extramarital affairs, about which they are avowedly open and honest.
Tomas is a single-minded prima donna – a narcissist who celebrates wrapping his latest Paris-set film by sleeping with Agathe (Adèle Exarchopoulos), a young schoolteacher with a hint of Diana Keaton’s independent spirit in Looking for Mr Goodbar. “I had sex with a woman, can I tell you about it please?” Tomas says to Martin the next morning, adding that “I felt something I haven’t felt in a very long time.” “This is always what happens when you finish a film,” replies Martin wearily, insisting that “it’s fine, really” and that they will ride it out together.
Most modern American film-makers rarely get the chance to conjure frank sex scenes that serve an explicit narrative purpose
It soon becomes apparent, however, that despite Martin’s resigned optimism, Tomas is determined to test the boundaries of their bonds. “I think I’m falling in love with you,” he tells Agathe, to which she witheringly replies: “You say that a lot, I imagine.” But something is growing between them – something that will reveal deep fissures in Tomas’s relationship with Martin (their differing attitudes to love, to parenthood, to truthfulness), sucking all those around him into his chaotic solipsism.
Most modern American film-makers rarely get the chance to conjure frank sex scenes that serve an explicit narrative purpose, so it’s significant that Sachs has cited the Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini and the Belgian film-maker Chantal Akerman (along with fellow Europeans Maurice Pialat and Luchino Visconti) as inspirations for this French-German co-production. Personally, I found myself thinking of British maestro Nicolas Roeg’s 1973 masterpiece Don’t Look Now as I watched Sachs reveal key details of this broken love story through the dance of intertwined human bodies.
For all their talking, Tomas and Martin have a physical connection that tells us all we need to know about their years together – an understanding of each other’s rhythms, captured in long yet impressively unobtrusive takes by French-Canadian cinematographer Josée Deshaies.
Compare their fluid, familiar movements to the sense of reckless discovery that defines Tomas’s early encounters with Agathe, observing her responses to his touch with almost quizzical intoxication. When the jealous emotional landscape shifts, it’s body language that speaks loudest, dispensing with the need for clumsy verbal exposition.
Accompanying these physical dances are a smattering of adroitly chosen songs, most notably the spine-tingling a cappella sounds of Janet Penfold singing Won’t You Buy My Sweet Blooming Lavender, provoking a moment of quiet ecstasy. Later, Sachs turns to the experimental jazz cacophony of Albert Ayler’s Spirits Rejoice to dramatise the warring voices in Tomas’s lovelorn head as he cycles furiously through the streets of Paris.
Inevitably, such fluency in the cinematic language of love comes at a price. In the US, where the movie ratings system effectively demonises any film aimed solely at adults, the distributor Mubi has opted to release Passages unrated after failing to overturn a commercially toxic NC-17 classification.
Sachs, who endured similar tussles over Love Is Strange, has called this “a form of cultural censorship that is quite dangerous”, adding that the ratings board’s complaints about “ass and fingers and bodies in motion” appear to have been “written by someone who seems to be literally from a different era”. Meanwhile, here in the UK, where the BBFC’s “adults-only” 18 rating has none of the infantile stigma of its transatlantic counterpart, Passages deserves to find the widest audience among fans of “grownup” cinema.