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Sex, Stereotypes, And Self-Indulgence Makes For A Messy ‘Passages’

The latest film from American indie-auteur Ira Sachs, Passages, feels like a messy collage of provocative scenes of sex, sexuality, and the pursuit of pleasure. Its characters lack depth and texture, inadvertently being reduced to homophobic stereotypes. Ultimately, Sachs’ limited gaze inhibits a sharper examination of the toxic behaviours and spiritual void in anchorless urban queer lives.

Passages revolves around a mercurial film director, Tomas, who vacillates between a man and a woman. When not micro-managing a film set or editing room, Tomas swings dramatically the other way, relinquishing any semblance of control. His husband, Martin, a print artist, seems to have reconciled with Tomas’ flakiness, egotism, and infidelities. When Tomas starts an affair with a Parisian school teacher, Agathe, his marriage crumbles.

Tomas’ feels a primal sexual connection with Agathe that he misses with his level-headed husband. Sex, pleasure, and an unending search for new experiences shape Tomas and his relationships. As his indecisiveness and self-absorption pile up emotional scars, he seems unaware of the pain and turmoil he inflicts. The film’s ending suggests that he is probably incapable of change and will move on.

With a skeletal, bare-boned script, Passages eschews narrative heft for raw emotions and physicality. Tomas and Martin’s relationship is never given a prologue. We wonder why Martin remains married to such a needy man-child. Similarly, we never really see Agathe and Tomas have a conversation. When he proclaims his love to her, she catches his ruse. Yet, she sticks by him, even when his behaviour becomes increasingly irresponsible.

The portrait of the artist as a self-centered, obnoxious person is a gripping narrative device. Tomas and Martin are artists, which might explain their dynamics that the audience is never privy to. Instead, director Ira Sachs frames the film’s conflict solely around sexual needs and sexuality. He reduces Tomas to an bundle of red flags, a caricature of the ‘confused bisexual.’

We get acquainted only with Tomas’ promiscuity and his neediness. His inability to choose, confusion, and untrustworthiness as a romantic partner feed into biphobic tropes. By not allowing us, the viewers, a chance to know Tomas better, Passages invariably becomes an unflattering portrayal of the queer man as avaricious and hyper-sexual. The script feeds off a laundry list of garden-variety stereotypes that reduce modern queer experiences to sex and the hunt for it.

The self-involved film director. The silent artist husband. The unsuspecting young woman. We rarely get to know the principal characters beyond these archetypes. In exploring the boundaries of monogamy in this particular manner, the film feeds into broad cultural notions of queer men’s floating desires.

In Passages, Ira Sachs enters the domain of the private and keeps his lens on the body and the intimacy of sexual lives. But, in stripping the characters of preamble and context, he presents a blank canvas for the viewer to project their notions and biases upon. On this sheet, viewers are left to paint their backstory, fascinations, condemnation, ambivalence, and fears.

The film’s fetishist gaze on the male body and the choreography of the sex scenes distract from the film’s purportedly complex subject. While raw and unrestrained, the intimate scenes lack poignancy or narrative weight. Sachs’ well-known mastery of mining pathos from sexual intimacy can be seen in the tender yet brutal climactic sex scene. This is an outlier, for the film is too self-contained, timid, and unambitious.

Friendly urban spaces, evolving socio-legal landscapes, and digital citizenship have contributed to a boom in diverse queer experiences. Queer people are now exposed to ideas, freedoms, and access with little precedence in most of modern world history. There is no guidance or ingrained cultural practices to help navigate the complexities of these privileges. Queer city-living is marked by filtered ‘Instagrammable’ choices on dating apps and ghettoized social circles.

At the heart of Passages is a character we are all too familiar with in our social fabric – the toxic queer man. This man (or person, but mostly a man) thrives in insulated queer cityscapes rife with body shaming, transphobia, abuse, addiction, and violence. Tomas is a product of his environment, where his privileges make him arrogant, self-centered, and uninhibited. The film fails to broaden its horizons to observe the social setting and interactions that create the conditions for such toxicity to thrive.

What redeems the film is the prodigious talent in front and behind the lens. Franz Rogowski’s body and fishnet crop tops do most of the talking. Ben Whishaw and Adele Exarchopolous have too little to do. A special nod to designer Khadija Zeggaï’s wardrobe choices that make us reflect on “the versions of ourselves we put out into the world, and what that self-presentation says about our desires and insecurities.”

Ira Sachs wants this film to mimic the “hunger for movies that are in any proximity to our own experience.” His indulgent and episodic take on sex, sexuality, romance, marriage, family, and gender dynamics falls short of that vaunted goal. Coming from the director of Keep the Lights On and Love is Strange, it feels like a missed opportunity.

Queerness is more than sex and sexuality. But, in the age of Grindr, sexual experiences are often overemphasized in urban queer lives. Passages fail to interrogate the dichotomies of our sexual experiences and their lingering impact. It is a disjointed picture of a man in codependent relationships who cannot keep it in his pants. Even that feels less than the sum of the scenes.

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Anupam . is a queer writer and cinephile based out of Kolkata. They watch a lot of movies, follow tennis religiously, and stans Arundhati Roy.
Anupam .

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