Last night my husband and I saw Passages. It’s our fifth film at a theater in six weeks, which is a record for us, not only post-pandemic but for our entire relationship. We’ve always liked “going to the movies,” but never did it quite as often as we have been doing recently, and frankly I like the new pattern.
The film is so skillfully written, filmed, and acted that we talked about it, considering the characters and scenes from different angles, on the way to the car, on the drive home, and again this morning over breakfast.
In short, Tomas and Martin, both expatriates living in Paris, have been married for a number of years; the film begins at the point of a relationship already distant and strained. Following a mild argument with his husband, Tomas has sex with a woman, Agathe. Over the next ninety minutes, we follow Tomas and Martin’s relationship as it ends, renews, ends, renews, and finally ends.
The film pretends to be about the disintegration of a marriage, but is really about two people who happen to be married to each other. (And a third person, who gets somewhat short shrift, not to mention ill treatment.)
The title is, I think purposefully, reminiscent of the mid-70s book by Gail Sheehy about adult stages of life, which popularized the concept of “mid-life crisis.” To me, this seems like a joke on the part of the filmmaker. Tomas is excited over his affair with Agathe because it offers a chance to feel something “different,” and he describes it as “growth.” He says he wants to see Martin “grow” as well.
Which is a lie, of course; when Martin, angry and hurt, begins his own relationship with another man, Tomas reacts with near-panic, which leads to a number of complications.
There is no “growth,” here, for either of the two men — perhaps for Agathe, who learns a hard lesson indeed, but there is no evidence of Tomas and Martin being any different at the end than they were at the beginning.
It’s telling that the film starts, essentially, in medias res; the relationship is already strained, and I don’t think we ever learn anything about either of their lives, separate or together, before the moment of the opening. (Aside from some facts about Tomas’ family, which we learn about in a very funny scene with Agathe’s parents.)
And when Tomas first excitedly tells Martin of his sex with Agathe, Martin responds, “This always happens when you finish a film.”
On the surface, we are presented with Tomas (in a fantastic performance from Franz Rogowski) as the villain of the piece, struggling with his “feelings” and the havoc they wreak on his own life and everyone else’s. Martin is presented — again, on the surface — as the sympathetic one.
Except, actually, Martin is just as culpable for bad choices and selfish desires as Tomas. Tomas wants new experiences; Martin wants a child, but to what end? Martin proves himself willing to hurt other people in order to get what he wants, just like Tomas.
These characters are not going through a “mid-life crisis,” and the passage through which they are going is ultimately not leading to anywhere different than where they started. Completely ungrounded in their being, even as they both seem relatively stable and successful, they are seeking something that they feel is missing, because they have no idea what it is that they’re actually missing.
The film ends with Tomas cycling wildly and aimlessly through the city at night. It freezes on his face and fades to black.
* Yes, I know I stole the title from Philip K. Dick.