Fiercely sexy and piercingly sad, Ira Sachs’s new movie is a tremendous return to form after the disappointment of his very odd Isabelle Huppert vehicle Frankie. It’s a love triangle in which two gay men and a straight woman find themselves in a polycule of resentment; a celebrated young film-maker cheats on his husband with a young woman, and then in an evolvingly weak and dishonest way, tries somehow to finesse a continuing desire for his previous partner with this new heterosexual relationship. The sophisticated Venn diagram of sexual expression that he vaguely imagines is tested to destruction by the simple reality of human feelings.
The setting is Paris; Franz Rogowski plays Tomas, a brilliant, but mercurial young director whom we see in an opening scene tearing a strip off some unfortunate young actor for walking into shot the wrong way. He is married to Martin, played by Ben Whishaw, an elegant, rather diffident artist and printer who is bored at the wrap party and irritates Tomas by leaving early. So instead, Tomas dances with Agathe, played by Adèle Exarchopoulos, and goes home with her. At first Tomas is airily direct with Martin that this has happened, never apologising and asking Martin to help him work through this situation.
Deeply hurt, Martin draws into himself; Tomas’s affair with Agathe continues; but he panics at the thought of losing Martin, and attempts a reconciliation with an explosively and uncompromisingly explicit sex scene. But is he still in love with Martin? Does he love Agathe? Or is Tomas simply trying to re-order the disintegrating situation to his own advantage using his own very considerable sexiness? The passages of the title could mean the transition from one kind of desire to another, or a transition to realising that desire brings new responsibilities in its train.
The result is sadness and pain, but it is arrived at via an exhilarating and fascinating adventure. Sachs has in the past been the poet of middle-aged people’s feelings. Now he has gone down a generation, almost into Eric Rohmer territory, into the world of younger people who have much less experience of disappointment and compromise. Or perhaps, in this world of cosmopolitan sophistication, it is Woody Allen territory or Nora Ephron territory. There is a big laugh when Tomas, that devil-may-care cheater, phones Martin, assuming that he is now sadly alone and then snaps: “What’s that music?” We cut to Martin’s apartment as he replies dismissively: “Don’t be ridiculous!” but the shot reveals that he is not alone.
Rogowski, Whishaw and Exarchopoulos are all black-belt performers and they bring this film to vivid and sensual life. This is perhaps most interesting in the excruciating scene in which Tomas has to have lunch with Agathe’s utterly disapproving parents when it becomes clear that their ménage must be taken seriously. Agathe’s mother Edith (Caroline Chaniolleau) communicates with Tomas, or fails to, in halting English, and there’s an almost mute cameo for Olivier Rabourdin as Agathe’s utterly uncomprehending dad.
Perhaps Exarchopoulos marginally upstages the two men in her final scene; facing Martin over a cafe table, she rejects a certain present that Martin tries to give her, and perhaps takes a certain tiny, cold pleasure in rejecting it, and punishing Martin for remaining loyal to Tomas. There’s a rather priggish discourse on social media right now about the unacceptability of the sex scene, which supposedly does not advance the plot. In Passages the sex is the plot: the plot of all our lives.
• Passages is released on 1 September in UK and Irish cinemas.