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Out Director Ira Sachs’ New ‘Passages’ Examines Love Triangle

With his new project, “Passages,” out director Ira Sachs wanted to make a film of pleasure and intimacy.

“During the pandemic, particularly, I felt a lack of both, so I focused on a love triangle because I felt like the stakes were raised in that situation in a way that made for pure cinema,” he said.

Said triangle involves Tomas (Franz Rogowski), a queer director married to Martin (Ben Whishaw)) and Agathe, a young schoolteacher played by “Blue is the Warmest Color’s” Adèle Exarchopoulos, with whom he begins an affair. “Passages” premiered successfully at Sundance this year and is now in theaters.

Tomas and Martin are not in a good place as the film opens.

“In a way, it’s a film that starts at the bottom and goes down from there,” he said. “They are at a point where everything is stuck, and everything is broke but there is still this passion for each other. And so there is an inability to achieve resolution. That is what keeps the film hopping.”

When Sachs wrote the film, he thought it would be about sexual identity and a change in one’s label.

“But the film we made is much more contemporary than that, and I think partially because the three actors and the three characters are of a different generation where the labels don’t work,” he said. “Things are changing for Tomas, but gender doesn’t seem to be the central reason why. It’s a different kind of lust.”

His films are always known for their complex characters. Sachs feels like his education was in cinema, but also in the novel.

“What I look for in a novel is a depth that makes the flat become round,” he said. “There is a way in which layer upon layer upon layer is what connects me to art and literature and film. I am always trying to create stories full of contradictions and also with a certain amount of emotional suspense. The question of what he or she will do next is paramount in every scene. I consider this film an action film. It’s about the way bodies impact each other and potentially combust.”

The director decided to set “Passages” in Paris because of his comfort with and love for the city.

“I first lived [there] in the mid ’80s, and it is a city that I have had relationships in, had breakups in, had sex in,” he said. “I have cried in Paris. So, it is a city I feel very comfortable and intimate with. It is also a great city of movies. The possibility of making a film there felt like an aesthetic liberation, because I could play with my love of French cinema in making this.”

He met Whishaw on Instagram Messenger.

“As two gay men interested in film and the arts, we exchanged certain ideas and interests between us,” Sachs said. “When the movie came along, I took the opportunity to send the script to him and he responded very quickly.”

One scene between Whishaw and Rogowski is a lengthy two minute real-time sex scene, filmed in one take. Of the three central sex scenes in the film, each one tells its own story, says the director. It’s to the credit of the actors, he feels, that they do.

“I cannot do that,” Sachs said. “It’s the actors who take the opportunity and with a sense of trust tell us a story about lust and passion. They create the commas, the periods and the exclamation points. When you watch those scenes it’s really an extraordinary level of performance both physically but as storytellers. Making sex interesting is not easy.”

The film was given an NC-17 rating by the Motion Picture Association recently and distributor Mubi decided to release it unrated. It’s not the first time that queer content has been threatened with that rating. Sachs isn’t happy with the situation.

“It less affects me as a filmmaker because I made a very free film, and I was supported by my producer and distributor,” he said. “What I find alarming is the warning shot a rating like that gives to other filmmakers, particularly queer ones, about what kind of images will be allowed and what kind will be punished. It is chilling.”

He is not a fan of the MPA.

“We should question less why the film is rated NC-17 and more why the MPA still exists,” he said. “Why is the censorship allowed by the industry and the culture — and us as an audience?”

“Passages” is in area theaters now.