Is ‘Passages’ the Narcissist’s Manifesto? Not Quite.

[Co-published with Geek Vibes Nation.]

Art loves a good narcissist.

There is something deeply compelling about a character who is masterfully self-involved. It could be the sense of superiority, a chance to be appalled at one’s thoughtlessness. Jealousy or self-identification might also play a part; don’t we all believe at some point that the world does, or should, revolve around us? Whatever the reason, narcissists make for evocative entertainment, inspiring every kind of emotion, from pity to fury.

And yet, for all the Don Drapers, Hannah Horvaths, and Light Yagamis of the world, Tomas of Passages is in a different league.

Tomas (Franz Rogowski) is a fledging filmmaker living in France with his husband Martin (Ben Whishaw). He is mercurial, reckless, romantic, and mesmerizing to be around. He sucks the air out of a room only to blow it in your face as a tease. These conflicting, confounding traits come into sharp relief when he meets schoolteacher Agathe (Adèle Exarchopoulos) one night after an intense day of shooting. Tomas and Agathe sleep together, and Tomas almost immediately tells Martin, expecting him to be happy about this new opportunity to channel his flaming passions. It goes as well as you might expect. Tomas and Adele begin a relationship, but Tomas refuses to let Martin go, particularly as Martin pursues his own affair. Tomas traps Agathe and Martin in a sordid love triangle that only gets messier with his reckless abandon and the life-changing circumstances that come into play.

Franz Rogowski in Passages (Courtesy: MUBI)

In case it isn’t clear, Tomas is insufferable. He might be the most “main character” character in years, so blissfully blind to his selfishness that it’s a wonder anyone can bother sharing the same space as him. And yet, Tomas commands attention, not just of his unfortunate lovers but of the audience. Director Ira Sachs draws you deep into Tomas’ orbit, not necessarily to emphasize with him but to better understand his allure. His camera closely follows him, observing how Tomas practically vibrates in his skin when he isn’t the center of attention. When Tomas sleeps with Agathe, the camera pulls close to his face, scrutinizing his perception of her pleasure. When Tomas is in bed with Martin, Sachs flips the perspective, but the objective is the same: to make us feel how badly Tomas wants, or thinks he wants, Martin. Everyone is to be subsumed by Tomas.

Sachs’ intimate focus on Tomas wouldn’t work without Franz Rogowski’s overwhelming screen presence. Tomas might lack self-awareness, but Rogowski sharply balances Tomas’ worst traits with a wry likability that makes his character undeniably magnetic. It permeates every aspect of his performance, even how he wears Tomas’ iconic wardrobe. Rogowski moves and speaks with a winking acknowledgment that Tomas is too much. Still, he respects his character enough to immerse himself in every impulsive, careless act. Rogowski doesn’t seek sympathy, but his natural fragility works for him. Tomas may be difficult, but boy, can he make you feel despite your better judgment. 

Adèle Exarchopoulos and Ben Whishaw in Passages (Courtesy: MUBI)

That problem is even worse for Tomas’ partners, Martin and Agathe. Passages asks, “How much can one person take from their lover?” It’s easy to blame Tomas, but Sachs is equally intrigued by the ambiguities of his partners’ inability or refusal to leave him. Martin knows how Tomas can be; when Tomas discloses his affair, Martin says with pointed exasperation, “This always happens…you just forget,” implying infidelity is par for the course. And yet, Martin cannot pull away, barely putting up an effort. He falls so quickly and easily back into Tomas’ orbit that he entertains Tomas’ ludicrous suggestions of starting a family. As for Agathe, she similarly sees Tomas’ infatuation with her for what it is but indulges in the fantasy anyway, even dragging her reasonably skeptical parents into it.

Are Martin and Agathe at fault for indulging Tomas? Possibly, but Passages doesn’t judge anyone for their uniquely terrible choices. Instead, he teases out the nuances of their circumstances. The humor, the passion, the melodrama all slinks across the screen. In this way, Sachs is unabashed as his protagonist, indulging in the pleasures and subsequent carnage that Tomas leaves behind. The film doesn’t shy away from any of it. The sex scenes are as extensive as the languid pillow talk and desperate pleading. (That said, the NC-17 rating the film initially received from the MPA is not deserved.) Sachs may not judge his triad, but he considers and ultimately celebrates the freedom to make their own choices. That energizing acknowledgment engages you even when the cyclical drama might almost push you away. 

Franz Rogowski in Passages (Courtesy: MUBI)

Passages could be read as a narcissist manifesto, centering on one of the most self-involved characters in recent memory. If it is, it is an undeniably compelling one that demonstrates how magnetism and bravado can seduce us. Sachs sympathizes with that instinct without excusing either the perpetrator or victim. If you want to be or love a narcissist, you must accept the consequences, no matter how painful and exhilarating. It’s a startlingly neutral and honest stance for a film, perhaps too honest for a narcissist.

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