Entertainment Weekend:Passion and love get messy in Ira Sachs’ smoldering ‘Passages’

If you’ve been wondering where all the sex has gone from the movies, you’re in luck: The new film “Passages” does not hold back in depicting the fresh passion of a love affair.

But “Passages” should really come with a warning, and not because of its realistic illustrations of queer and heterosexual intimacy, which got the film slapped with an NC-17 rating. (Its distributor, MUBI, opted instead to release it in theaters as unrated.) No, “Passages” should come with a warning for its brutal honesty about the intoxicating haze of a new relationship and all its casualties.

At least it’s fun and dangerous at the start (aren’t they all, though). Directed by Ira Sachs, working again with his co-writer Mauricio Zacharias, “Passages” is centered on Tomas (Franz Rogowski), a German living in France with his English husband Martin (Ben Whishaw), who begins an affair with a French woman, Agathe (Adèle Exarchopoulos).

Tomas is a film director. We’re introduced to him micromanaging actors in a scene. He does not seem to be the kind who might resort to yelling at or berating those around him, but his insistence on controlling things and having them exactly how he wants them to be is not insignificant.

Like many directors before him, Tomas carries these expectations with him into his real life and relationships. At the wrap party, Martin doesn’t feel like dancing with Tomas, but Agathe, fresh out of her own relationship does. Later that night, they end up in bed and Tomas bikes home the next day to tell his husband how exciting it was to sleep with a woman.

“Passages,” many have noted, has a very European sensibility despite being directed by an American. Gender preferences aren’t etched in stone (nor do they require any discussion or explanation). Fidelity and monogamy aren’t the biggest deal. Wine isn’t just for the evening. And mesh shirts and crop tops aren’t just for the club (shoutout to Khadija Zeggaï’s vibrant, edgy costume design).

But even the most enlightened of young people still have feelings that can get hurt, despite their intellectual rejection of traditional social mores. Later in the film, Tomas sits down for an excruciatingly awkward dinner with Agathe’s parents who ask him about his intentions with their daughter and his plans.

Tomas is immediately defensive and hostile to the line of questioning. And while you can see both sides, as in many instances in “Passages,” Tomas comes off the worst. He’s so consumed with his own needs and pursuits that he can’t for a moment step outside of himself into anyone else’s shoes. When rejection comes from one place, he’s learned he can find quick solace elsewhere. Is he knowingly manipulative or just following his heart at all costs or some bewildering combination of the two? That is up to the viewer to decide, but the wreckage he leaves in his wake is real.

The trio of actors are wonderfully chaotic and all empathetic in their own way. But Whishaw is particularly excellent as one of the poor souls swept up in Tomas’ cyclone. Martin is on his own journey of discovery, learning for himself what he’s willing to tolerate in the name of love and when too much is just too much. Agathe is a bit more underdrawn which can be frustrating — she’s sometimes more object and foil than actual character. In one of the few scenes she’s depicted without Tomas, she’s being grilled by her young students about her dating life. But Exarchopoulos still brings depth and substance that may not be on the page.

Some have likened “Passages” to a horror movie (though aren’t all coming of age movies horrors in some way?) Regardless, it would make a fitting double feature with Christian Petzold’s “Afire”. They are both films that let you dabble in the feeling of having had a semester abroad, tumultuous feelings and all, without all the actual emotional fallout or jetlag.

“Passages,” a MUBI release in select theaters Friday, is unrated. Running time: 91 minutes. Three stars out of four.


Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr.