At first glance, Ira Sachs’ erotic drama Passages seems like a classic cheating-spouse story with a queer twist: a man betrays his husband for an exciting jolt of hetero infatuation, then ends up inflicting pain on both lovers. “There’s this idea that there’s one villain and two victims in this film,” Sachs told Observer last week. “But I think everybody in this film is driven by their own desire. And that’s what makes it suspenseful and exciting. That’s why I call it an action film!”
The Paris-set Passages is no simple cautionary tale about a philanderer. It’s a much richer portrait of three people who aren’t young adults anymore and are yearning for a transition but don’t quite know how to make the next step. Tomas (Franz Rogowski) is a hotshot German filmmaker long married to British high-end printer Martin (Ben Whishaw); both are restless in their relationship, which is already showing signs of strain. Then, at the wrap party for his latest movie, Tomas meets Agathe (Adèle Excharchopoulos), a voluptuous local schoolteacher, and impulsively finds himself having sex with her.
The next morning, Tomas confesses to Martin immediately and seems more thrilled than guilty. “It was exciting, it was something different,” he gushes. His husband glowers at the transgression. “It’s fine,” Martin sighs. But it’s really not: soon enough, Martin kicks Tomas out of the apartment, and Tomas moves in with Agathe.
“The whole film is a middle,” said the New York-based Sachs making a Zoom call from Los Angeles. “Every scene is in the middle and these lives are in the middle. They’re really trying to figure out how they’re going to construct their families, what their relationships are going to look like. And they haven’t made decisions yet. A lot of the suspense of the film is that each of them wants to build a meaningful life.”
Martin tries to cut out Tomas, and even takes a novelist acquaintance as a new lover. But Tomas keeps showing up to Martin’s apartment unannounced, and keeps wanting to win him back—even as his courtship with Agathe intensifies and he confesses that he’s fallen in love with her. “You say it when it works for you,” she says skeptically. “I say it when I feel it,” Tomas replies obstinately. She believes him, and then watches him show up late to a meet-and-greet dinner with her parents, wearing leopard-print pants and a silky Chinese dragon tank top.
Sachs has devoted his career to studying the finely-tuned nuances of the human heart. From his 1997 LGBT breakthrough film The Delta and his 2005 Sundance Grand Prize winner Forty Shades of Blue, to gay modern classics like 2012’s Keep the Lights On and 2014’s Love is Strange, Sachs has explored how conflicted lovers tug on each other’s emotions, in ways both nurturing and acidic. He’s perfected the art of what he calls “non-melodramatic melodrama,” quietly observed stories with seismic undercurrents.
“It was such an unusual voice,” said Whishaw in a Zoom call from London last month, just a few days before the SAG-AFTRA strike put a freeze on union actors promoting their work. “Ira is curious about people’s lives in a very beautiful way. He’s not interested in analyzing relationships in terms of who’s done wrong or who’s done right. Everyone is complex, and he’s interested in everyone’s multifacetedness. And people’s ability to be contradictory.”
Rogowski was equally enamored of Sachs’ work—a reciprocal feeling, since the filmmaker wrote Passages specifically for Rogowski despite never having worked with him. “It was very intimidating, but also an honor,” Rogowski (not a SAG member) said via Zoom this week from just outside London. “I read the script and I think we right away felt like we wanted to do this together.”
Not that Rogowski didn’t have his concerns. “Obviously the character felt a bit hard to justify, especially on paper,” he admitted. “But it’s much more than just, you know, an individual being mean. It’s a person struggling, first of all, with himself—being a friend to himself, being able to listen. We’ve all had experiences with narcissists and narcissism. What are the consequences if you live a life like he does? Once I understood those things, it was just pleasure to create him and inflict this chaos.”
And what chaos: the lascivious Tomas prioritizes his own appetites at all costs, which is exactly the type of film Sachs had in mind. “I wanted to make a movie that turned people on,” he admitted. “Because I’m a huckster like the rest of them! I was trying to make it the most colorful, show the most skin, have the most kind of erotic attachment to the pleasures of cinema I could find.”
It worked, since the Motion Picture Association slapped Passages with an NC-17 rating, not only for a scene where Tomas seduces Agathe into a prolonged and very carnal encounter, but also an even more enthusiastic bout of lovemaking with Martin. That particular moment—a one-sentence description in the original script—is an extended, single-shot tour-de-force of homosexual desire, legs-up thrusting and all, that’s virtually unseen in even arthouse movies.
“I wanted a scene that punctured the movie,” said Sachs. “A scene that shifted the rhythm in a way that would linger with the audience as a memory. Because I actually think films are not made up of narrative threads. The visual impact is really what you tend to remember about a film. Images that are strong enough to knock you out.”
The Emmy-, BAFTA-, and Golden Globe-winning Whishaw was all in. “I had no problem with any of it, really,” he said of his full-monty fornication. “It all felt totally justified by what the film is exploring, and it was worth going right into the truth of these things. It’s important to show relationships and sex as they are, or at least as they are for these particular people.” Sachs couldn’t agree more. “It’s about humans!” he said. “It’s not even just about sex. It’s about humans.”
As a storyteller, Sachs is interested in capturing vulnerability. “In life, there are moments in which you feel like you don’t know how to protect yourself,” he said. “That lack of protection in some ways is what I’m interested in when I make a movie. I don’t rehearse, for example, which means that the actors can’t turn to something that’s been decided before we start shooting and settle there. They have to keep trying to expose themselves in honest ways.”
As honest as the characters may feel, their wardrobe choices plant them firmly in a glamorous film firmament. From Tomas’ sartorial splendor (black mesh shirts, snakeskin jackets) to Martin’s discreetly louche touches (thin red robe, crushed velvet jacket with a powder-blue blouse) to Agathe’s casual bombshell look (tight red turtlenecks; short, form-fitting dresses), the main characters are unassumingly fetching.
“They’re wonderful,” said Rogowski about Tomas’ ferocious regalia, selected by renowned costume designer Khadija Zeggaï, whose husband, Saïd Ben Saïd, is also the film’s producer. “We did a costume rehearsal in their apartment,” explained Rogowski. “It was one of our first get-togethers. I have a tendency to blend in, but I was inspired to wear these things—they’re so weird and it creates so much tension, and that’s lovely.”
Rogowski found the clothes so inspirational he even kept a few items. “Some of them are in my wardrobe now,” he said. “That transparent green pullover. And the teddy bear jacket. The striped pants. Also the scarves. Whatever drawer or door I open, I see a piece of Tomas in my wardrobe.”