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Empathy Comes With Maturity: Ira Sachs on Passages

With his new film “Passages,” writer/director Ira Sachs forges a scorchingly sensual, exhilaratingly free, and brutally honest vision of romantic desire in all its raw, violent collisions. 

Tracing the combustible relationships between filmmaker Tomas (Franz Rogowski), his longtime partner Martin (Ben Whishaw), and schoolteacher Agathe (Adèle Exarchopoulos), with whom Tomas begins an affair after wrapping his new film in Paris, the film—a MUBI release; now in select theaters—is an often breathtakingly intimate exploration of love and power. And as Tomas draws Martin and Agathe into a chaotic, self-serving ménage à trois, fracturing his marriage and impacting others in his orbit, “Passages” emerges as a drama that, true to its title, is most precise in depicting the passionate uncertainty that so often swirls around lives and bodies in transition. 

For Sachs, “Passages” represents a leap forward. Across 30 years of filmmaking, his sharply observed, quietly controlled character studies—from feature debut “The Delta,” a languid portrait of queer yearning and repression set in his native Memphis, to “Keep the Lights On,” about a toxic decade-long relationship between two young men, and “Love Is Strange,” in which an older gay couple ties the knot—have studied love’s unpredictable nature and destructive outcomes. In “Passages,” perhaps the most liberated film that Sachs has made in its vigorous eroticism and forward motion, the director leaves ample space for three magnetic young stars of the European arthouse to fully embody their characters and fearlessly illuminate their inner cross-currents of pleasure, pain, and confusion.

Since premiering at the Sundance Film Festival, “Passages” has stoked online discourse around portrayals of sexual intercourse on screen; when it received an NC-17 rating from the MPA, which MUBI rejected to instead release the film unrated and uncut, that conversation was again inflamed. Sachs has described the decision as homophobic, puritanical, and out of step with his film’s open depiction of sexual experience. 

In Chicago last week to discuss “Passages” following its opening-night screenings at the Music Box Theatre—where the film played earlier this year as part of the Chicago Critics Film Festival—Sachs sat down with in the lobby of the Hoxton to discuss the importance of capturing sexual fluidity and why he considers “Passages” to be an action film. Additionally, he reflected on attending the Art Institute of Chicago’s “Peter Hujar: Performance and Portraiture” exhibit; Sachs plans to make a film about the influential East Village photographer, “Peter Hujar’s Day,” with Whishaw in the lead role, in New York City later this year. 

This conversation has been edited and condensed. 

There’s a fluidity to the three main characters of “Passages”—to their exploration of self and sexuality, their pursuit of intimacy and desire, even their individual minute-to-minute movements—that feels central to the film’s contemporary lens on relationships. Can you discuss that idea of fluidity? 

It's a concept by accident, in a certain way. When I was writing the script with Mauricio Zacharias, my co-writer, we were potentially hung up on the idea of change, in terms of sexual identity, for the lead character of Tomas. At least the people I gave the script to were hung up on that idea, meaning that I had friends who said, “That’s not possible. Why would someone make that change?” And I was like, “It's not a problem. I’m pretty certain.” And the film that we made was proof of that—not only that it isn’t unbelievable in the film but that [disbelief] is actually not present in the film because it’s a different generation than my own. 

The people reading the script were people like myself, who came from an age in which sexual identity was hard to claim, when there was a need to state it in a fixed form. That’s changed, in a lot of ways. I’m wary of the concept of progress, because I don’t see history as going in a consistently better direction, but around this particular question of sexual possibility and experience I feel that the film is testament to positive change. These actors also made that possible. They weren’t asking the same questions that I was, and in some ways that’s because that’s what they know, in their own lives and in their own communities.

You don’t spend much time with these characters debating or defining what they are to each other. 

What I intended to do was to make a film that exists frame-by-frame in the present. There’s almost no reference to the past, except through feeling. You know there is a past; you buy the elements of history that these characters have, but that’s conveyed through present-tense action. I consider “Passages” to be an action film. There is no room for the past in an action film. 

Franz Rogowski, Ben Whishaw, and Adèle Exarchopoulos are all extraordinary in the film and bring such presence to their performances. Watching the film, you feel such force and vitality from each of them on screen.  

That’s exactly the kind of movie I wanted to make. It’s funny because, when I was young, I used to obsessively consider John Cassavetes as an inspiration. And, at some point, the actor Eric Bogosian, who was my boss [when I was working as an assistant as a Yale sophomore,] advised me to stop watching Cassavetes’ movies. And I did. Except for “Opening Night,” I’ve not returned to them in 25 years. But in thinking about “Passages,” now that it’s done, I think a lot about the role of the actor in a Cassavetes film. 

Part of that is that, [with “A Woman Under the Influence,”] you mostly talk about Gena Rowlands, John Cassavetes, and Peter Falk. You don’t talk about Mabel, one of the characters. You talk about them as people you know because you feel that you’re watching stories being told that are also documents of those performers. And I think that’s the feeling that we achieved in “Passages” as well. Franz has said that what he likes in the movie is that it seems to be about both of them. At certain moments, it’s about Tomas. And at other moments, it’s about Franz. You’re watching them both, and there is space for that.

One early sequence in “Passages” where you feel that continuum between actor and character has Rogowski and Exarchopoulos dancing in a club. It’s very sensual, how Tomas and Agathe move and study one another, but you also sense the intensifying of their desire. What’s the secret to a sequence like that, where bodies are in motion, minds are at work, and you convey both without dialogue?

One of the hardest places to shoot is a nightclub, partly because your nemesis is dialogue. How do you keep them dancing and hear the dialogue? In dancing and in sex, and in other scenes—specifically, I’m thinking of the making of Tomas’ film-within-the-film, and parts of the scene with Agathe’s parents—you can see actors who are extraordinarily sharp with improvisational skills. 95% of “Passages” is scripted, but 5% is not, and that 5% leaks into the rest of the movie. Part of what you’re seeing in the dance scene is people telling stories without words, which is what you’re also seeing in the bedrooms.

Also, the scenes in the bedrooms—except for the middle sex scene between Tomas and Agathe—are single takes. There are three sex scenes, and the middle one is constructed through images, whereas the other two are single shots. What you’re seeing in the dance club scene is also the power of editing. I can tell you that, until almost the very last pass of the film, we didn’t tell the story as well of them seducing each other as we did in the final cut. It’s about what moment is narrative but purely visual, so it’s about montage in that scene. 

Tomas is successful as a filmmaker, and he’s married to Martin, but he’s constantly calling out for a kind of attention he’s not receiving. He’s jealous and insecure, with this desire to draw others in but no real consideration of what to do with them once he succeeds.

My own relationships are flashing before my eyes! Happily, not my present one. [laughs] I wouldn’t say I’ve known a long list of people like that, but I know the person you’re talking about. Probably, I can also be that person, but not consistently—in specific moments. 

Tomas, as well, becomes that person in key moments of action or inaction—such as the scene you mentioned with Agathe’s parents, where he could meet them halfway in this critical moment for their potential family but instead rejects their questioning of him and retreats from the table.

That’s a moment where he can’t conquer the rules of the world. Usually, he can squirm out of those rules. In that situation, he has no way out, so he has to leave the table. There’s no way to move the chess pieces toward victory. And victory is really important for him. It’s what he’s after, from start to finish: to win. [pauses] That also seems really personal. [laughs] But my mother isn’t that way. She doesn’t need that. My mother’s also not ambitious. 

I think all of this is connected to ambition. The flip side of need is productivity. You’re doing something because you need something, though need is not the sole reason why someone creates. To me, what I missed most during the pandemic, and what became clear to me, was that if I didn’t continue to be creative—which, I worried during the pandemic, was disappearing, along with the end of other things—I would feel completely disconnected from myself. I felt lonely, because I didn’t have any conversation with myself about the creation of art. I had intimacy during the pandemic, with my husband and with my kids, but not with myself.

These characters are caught up in their relationships throughout the film but not as often alone with their thoughts, at least that we see. Tomas finds those moments of solitude while riding his bicycle, and in one remarkable scene, we study his features as he speeds through the city.

Throughout the film, bicycle riding is a place of reverie. It’s a pause between conflict and connectedness to some place in which he’s technically alone. And yet, the camera can watch. That’s one great thing that the camera can do: watch people when they’re alone. It’s a great oxymoron. In my films, often, there are moments like that. In “Love is Strange,” there’s a scene with a teenage kid crying in a stairwell. He’s just left Alfred Molina’s apartment, he’s alone, and he breaks down, but we’re there. That’s what the camera can do. You can be there when you’re not there. The camera’s there with the characters in the sex scenes, but it’s also not there, because you’re not allowed very close. 

I’ve read that you were first struck by Franz Rogowski in Michael Haneke’s “Happy End,” in the scene where he mimics the choreography for Sia’s “Chandelier” music video. I remember seeing Rogowski in “Great Freedom,” as well, where he retains such individuality in his movements, in the liberations of his body, even within these constrictive spaces.   

He’s like Buster Keaton. And he’s a heartthrob, just like Buster Keaton. What a beautiful face! He also has something of Peter Lorre ... In my collaboration with [director of photography] Josée Deshaies, all we were interested in was how bodies move through space. I’m not interested in trying to create metaphor, though films are always filled with metaphor. I’m not consciously using bodies to describe power. I’m just trying to be attentive. 

I went earlier to the Peter Hujar exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago. He was a New York photographer who died in the ’90s; David Wojnarowicz was his partner and then his best friend. It’s a small, beautiful exhibit. You learn a lot about Hujar. What I love about Hujar is that in his photography, he pays great attention. And part of what he’s paying attention to is how human shape conveys emotion. That’s what Josée was very engaged in for “Passages,” and it’s also something Franz Rogowski understands as a performer because he thinks of his body and acting as a form of sculpture, as living sculpture. He’s very thoughtful about the impact of his form.

Rogowski also fills out the extraordinary wardrobe that costume designer Khadija Zeggaï created in collaboration with you for his character—the sheer dragon-print crop top, a green sweater, and the snakeskin jacket.

I like the term “fills out,” because it’s partially about the strength of his body. He actually does fill those clothes. If skin was an option, I took it, on purpose, because it’s fun, and probably because I could, right? The power of a director, to make choices in which people reveal their bodies in certain ways that turn you on, is an interesting dynamic ... Certainly, there were direct conversations around what the actors were comfortable revealing or exposing, but those weren’t very long conversations. Lines were drawn, and we proceeded from there. 

For some reason, I was obsessed with this sweater he wore that was bright orange that looks like the “Hot Lips” logo for the Rolling Stones. He dances in it at that bar after meeting Ahmad, [played by Erwan Kepoa Falé,] the writer, and you see it from the back. It’s a great color. There’s also another orange sweater he didn’t end up wearing that I was obsessed with.

I wanted to ask about this childlike quality of Tomas and his longing, this innocent impulsivity, that is often conveyed through those wardrobe choices, which are sometimes provocative but often cozy and domestic.  

That childlike quality is interesting to me, because it’s actually something that is really beautiful but also stunted and immature. It’s the combination that is very much Tomas—not so much Franz, but Tomas, in the sense that it’s the energy and impulsiveness of a child, which feels emotionally stunted in the figure of an adult. Something I realized, with my kids, is that empathy comes with maturity. You have to learn how to be empathetic. With Tomas, that maturity never comes.

“Passages” examines other imbalances in the relationships Tomas has with Martin, a wealthy gay man, and Agathe, a female school teacher. It’s also cruel the way Martin discards Ahmad, who is Black, and the film as a whole is sharp in applying these lenses of gender, race, and economic status to consider the love triangle through.

The two men discard Agathe very violently at the country house. To me, that scene is from a horror movie. As we shot it, we were all aware of how violent it was. I thought of [Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s] “Fox and His Friends,” about another couple. Our film has that portrait of gay misogyny, whereas in “Fox and His Friends,” the object of desire is another man. 

I’m curious about class, because there’s an important class distinction between the two men and the woman in this film. “Passages” was inspired by Luchino Visconti’s last film, “The Innocent,” about an aristocrat with a mistress and a wife. It’s about money and power. I don’t think of Martin and Tomas as aristocratic. They seem to have come to their power through their lives. They don’t seem born to the manor, which is an important distinction. It’s different from Visconti’s film, with Visconti also being an aristocrat himself. Class also has financial history, and I’m not sure if you can pinpoint the history of the characters in this film. 

I’m currently reading Anthony Trollope’s Chronicles of Barsetshire, which I recommend if you ever want to read a funny, modern, plot-driven 19th-century novel. It spans six volumes, but the first one is called The Warden. 19th-century novels understood that money was a character in every single situation. People were never distinct from their financial history and experience. There’s no way to describe a character without understanding their relationship to money. I feel like there’s this weird erasure of that in contemporary cinema.

For the younger generation depicted in “Passages,” you could say, financial success no longer holds this ultimate value. The fulfillment they desire comes more from interpersonal relationships and sexual freedom.

That’s right. And that’s America, isn’t it? That, in some ways, is the history of this country, though I didn’t make the film there. It’s interesting how that idea plays out in this European context.

“Passages” is now playing in select theaters, via MUBI.

Isaac Feldberg

Isaac Feldberg is an entertainment journalist currently based in Chicago, who’s been writing professionally for nine years and hopes to stay at it for a few more.

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