Producers: Saïd Ben Saïd and Michel Merkt   Director: Ira Sachs   Screenplay: Ira Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias   Cast: Franz Rogowski, Ben Whishaw, Adèle Exarchopoulos, Erwan Kepoa Falé, Caroline Chaniolleau and Olivier Rabourdin   Distributor: MUBI

Grade: B+

Nearly a decade ago writer-director Ira Sachs made “Love is Strange,” a poignant tale of an elderly gay couple forced by financial problems to live apart but struggling to maintain their long-time relationship.  With “Passages” he offers what might be called a ferocious flipside, the story of a younger gay couple torn apart by the callous self-absorption of one of the partners.  Highly charged but, like all of Sachs’s films, acutely observed, it’s also heart-wrenching, but in a very different way from “Love Is Strange.”

Tomas (Franz Rogowski) and Martin (Ben Whishaw) are both artists, though in separate fields.  Berlin-born Tomas is a film director and British Martin a designer and printer of posters.  They’re also distinctive personalities.  Tomas is casually dictatorial, while Martin is gentle and accommodating; they share an apartment in Paris and a country house outside the city. The nature of the relationship is dramatized in the opening sequence, where Martin is enlisted to do a walk-on in Tomas’ latest production.  Tomas gives him very specific instruction about how to come down a flight of stairs in a nightclub scene, and Martin meekly complies.  Yet their lovemaking is passionate, and Sachs and his stars capture the intensity it exudes.

Nonetheless at the afterparty for his film’s shoot, Tomas dances sensuously with Agathe (Adèle Exarchopoulos), and something clicks between them.  The next day she’s with a crowd of fans at his office; he asks her to stay behind, and they engage in torrid sex.  They’ll meet again at her apartment, and when Tomas returns home to Martin, he doesn’t hide what he’s done; rather he proudly announces it, even expecting, in his arrogance, that his partner will be happy for him.  Martin is hardly enthusiastic, but doesn’t allow the episode to destroy their relationship. 

But Tomas doesn’t step back from his desire for Agathe.  Instead he ostentatiously feeds on it, to the point that he’s at her apartment more than his own.  Eventually he moves out, and Martin moves on with Ahmad (Erwan Kepoa Falé), a writer he and Tomas met during an evening out with friends—another artist, but an easygoing, charming one.  It’s not long before he moves in with Martin.

But Tomas continues to drop by whenever the spirit moves him.  Even after he gets Agathe pregnant, he shows up to maintain his relationship with the increasingly exasperated Martin, refusing to consider selling their country house.  He responds bitterly to queries from Agathe’s parents (Caroline Chaniolleau and Olivier Rabourdin) when they question the depth of his commitment to their daughter, yet he also suggests to Martin that perhaps they can bring up the child together.  “Passages” is essentially an interior film, both in terms of concentrating on the inner lives of its characters and being largely confined to interior settings, but it does occasionally venture outdoors, especially to show Tomas frantically riding his bike through the Parisian streets, though whether he has a firm destination in mind isn’t clear.  His unmoored psychological state becomes evident in the devastating finale in which he connections with both his lovers unravel as he plans a trip to Venice for a festival screening of his film.

One can’t find fault with the performances of Wishaw and Exarchopoulos, both playing characters drawn irresistibly to Tomas despite his treatment of them.  And all of the remaining cast—from the loose, charismatic Falé and intense Chaniolleau through those in lesser roles, even walk-ons—build a world of intellectual privilege that is both rarefied and dramatically convincing.  The same description applies to the look of the film, crafted by production designer Pascale Consigny, costumer Khadija Zegga and cinematographer Josée Deshaies without ostentation but with conviction

The real driving forces behind the power of “Passages,” however, are Sachs and Rogowski.  Sachs, with Mauricio Zacharias, has written a script that persuasively depicts an unusual triangle of love and lust and then directed it with an attentiveness to detail and avoidance of melodramatic flourish, aided by Sophie Reine’s crisp editing, that permit its points to come across economically, without exaggeration.  Tomas, an inveterate user oblivious to his careless treatment of others, is hardly an attractive character, but Rogowski makes him understandable though hardly sympathetic, conveying the recklessness of his oversized ego without apology.  The single-mindedness of the artistic temperament has rarely been captured so realistically on screen, and the fact that Sachs can stage many of the most electric moments showing Rogowski from the back, knowing that we will be able to feel Tomas’ reactions to what other characters are saying without seeing his face simply from Rogowski’s posture and manner, is testimony to the mutual confidence of the writer-director and his star.

This is a fierce, often uncomfortable, counterpoint to “Love Is Strange,” a film that confirms Sachs’s mastery in fashioning intimate dramas that are at once equally insightful and utterly distinctive.