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Franz Rogowski and Adèle Exarchopoulos in Passages(Film still)

Ira Sachs on new film Passages: ‘My job is to pleasure the audience’

The director talks to Nick Chen about his new film, Passages – a sexy, thorny love-triangle drama starring Ben Whishaw, Adèle Exarchopoulos and Franz Rogowski

Chemistry, in regards to actors, usually denotes ecstatic flirting, comedic timing, or some kind of romantic spark that sets the frame aflame. But what if chemistry describes how the performers scream at each other with pure, intense loathing, their every glance and insult tinged with unfiltered vitriol? “There’s nothing more significant than who you cast in a movie,” observes the 57-year-old director Ira Sachs. “There was a lot of joy in the shooting. When you perform sadness, it actually needs to contain joy.”

In Passages, a thorny love-triangle drama Sachs co-wrote with Mauricio Zacharias, filmmaker Tomas (Franz Rogowski), his sculptor husband Martin (Ben Whishaw), and teacher Agathe (Adèle Exarchopoulos) repeatedly engage in tearful arguments and passionate sex at the expense of another’s feelings. That it all starts with a wild party is fitting: Tomas and Agathe spontaneously grind on the dancefloor before heading to a bedroom, transporting their impulsive energy to the sheets despite the many consequences.

“[Franz Rogowski] thinks of his body as a form of sculpture telling stories,” says Sachs. “Also, each of them are hot. Their bodies are part of their power in cinema, because they use them to create desire and beauty. And so do I, as the director. I think my initial impulse was to make a film of pleasure, and that my job was to pleasure the audience.”

Born in Memphis, Tennessee, Sachs shot his first six films in America, each one a sombre drama that examined human relationships from different angles. Love Is Strange, for instance, starred John Lithgow and Alfred Molina as a gay couple struggling to finance their Manhattan lifestyle. Keep the Lights On, also set in New York, took inspiration from Sachs’ experience of dating a drug addict for 10 years. Little Men, in 2016, further explored how Brooklyn’s exorbitant rent causes emotional havoc upon families.

As much as he frowns when I utter the words, Sachs is sort of a European filmmaker. 2019’s Frankie was a Portugal-set melodrama starring Isabelle Huppert, and Passages delights in Rogowski cycling around Paris amidst love affairs. During our conversation, too, Sachs namedrops Éric Rohmer and Maurice Pialat; in the credits, he thanks Olivier Assayas and François Ozon. “I’m an American making a film in France,” he says. “You can talk to me about Chantal Akerman and Cold Water, but I’m also an outsider. I’m able to jump in, but I’m also watching, which is sometimes exhausting.”

Passages isn’t exactly a glowing advertisement for open relationships when someone like Tomas is involved. During the trio’s cohabitation, Tomas swaps beds under the same roof, seemingly motivated by knowing the walls are as thin as his skin. Their attempt at a polycule is, then, offset by the fact that Tomas, the orchestrator, rarely considers the group as a whole. None of it bodes well, either, for how a hypothetical child would be raised within this arrangement.

“Every relationship has challenges,” says Sachs in response. “There’s no model that seems pain-free.” This isn’t a treaty on love, then? “No, but if I had a treaty on love, I’d say that there’s no word that’s more complicated. It’s funny how committed culture is to reducing love to something simple. The history of literature is the history of love. Love demands thousands and thousands of pages.”

Sachs has openly drawn from his life before, once revealing that diary entries fuelled the screenplay for Keep the Lights On. He reminds me of a moment in Passages when Martin informs Tomas, “I’m miserable in this relationship.” It’s word-for-word what the director was told by a partner in 1989. “Even then, I knew it was a good line. They were clearly breaking up with me.”

However, Sachs, in reality, enjoys a co-parenting situation in Manhattan that’s so successful, it received its own New York Times profile in 2014 and then again in 2016. “I raise two kids with my husband, my kids’ mother [Cameraperson director Kirsten Johnson], and her wife. Four parents, two kids. We live next door to each other. We like each other, we communicate well. We have tensions but have a lot of ease with each other. It’s been good for my kids.”

He continues, “I grew up as a child of divorce, so I already had a co-parenting situation in my youth. I feel like anything is possible, and anything can fail. Nothing seems more likely to succeed than anything else.”

“It’s funny how committed culture is to reducing love to something simple. The history of literature is the history of love. Love demands thousands and thousands of pages” – Ira Sachs

Amidst the bed romps of Passages, Sachs isn’t interested in defining anyone’s sexuality; instead, various characterisations unfold via wordless sequences, such as the firm, emboldened grip between Tomas and Martin when making up, perhaps for the last time, or the sense of discovery between Tomas and Agathe. “When Adèle and Franz are together, the sex is observation, even between the two people that are having it,” Sachs notes. “Franz is present and absent. That’s compelling to me.”

In the US, Passages was the victim of homophobia, receiving an NC-17 rating for a sex scene between Rogowski and Whishaw, much to the anger of Sachs. Relatedly, Whishaw commented that while he often receives scripts asking him to play a gay character, it’s rare he knows it’ll be directed by a gay filmmaker, thus he was, amongst other reasons, eager to work with Sachs.

“I’m not someone who feels that an actor needs to be gay in order to convey…” Sachs pauses, unsure what word to use. “I don’t ask people who they’ve slept with. That being said, there’s a certain freedom with someone you know has had similar experiences, and that’s true with someone like Ben, as a gay man, that I feel we share a certain liberty that is productive.”

If you’ve seen one image from Passages, it’s probably the one that’s been used in all the marketing since the Berlinale: Rogowski and Exarchopoulos throwing shapes at the aforementioned party. From the onset, Sachs, possibly inspired by his French filmmaking heroes, allows scenes to go longer than one is used to for an English-language feature released in 2023. Sometimes it’s witnessing movie stars strutting their stuff on the dance floor; elsewhere, it’s Whishaw struggling to drink an espresso while his heart is ripped to pieces, and then the aftermath as he puts himself back together. “The film is a series of middles, meaning there’s no beginning or end to the movie, or each scene,” Sachs explains. “You’re brought to a point where you’re slightly disoriented, and, over time, you become part of the film.”

In a 2010 article where he interviewed Lisa Cholodenko, Sachs remarked that it’s nearly impossible to get a non-genre drama, something with just people being people, made into a feature film, and that TV had taken over. Surely, in 2023, it’s way worse? After admitting he probably hasn’t spoken to Cholodenko since then, Sachs sighs: the movie landscape is in trouble. Nevertheless, don’t expect a miniseries from Sachs anytime soon.

“We used to talk about how television was going to destroy everything, and, in a way, it has,” says Sachs. “Everything about television is corporate, and any time anyone pretends it’s not, they’re lying to you. With cinema, there’s the potential to be local.” He won’t be selling out with his next project? “I’m not interested in working with corporations. And I don’t have to. I’m old. I don’t want to begin again.”

Passages is in UK cinemas on September 1

Dazed x MUBI Cinema Club will host a special screening of Passages at The Rio Cinema, Dalston on August 23, ahead of the film’s September 1 release date. After the screening, viewers will also be able to enjoy a Q&A session with Sachs himself, hosted by Jason Okundaye. Tickets are now available here

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