‘Passages’ Director Ira Sachs Says Audiences are Longing for an “Adult Film”

‘Passages’ Director Ira Sachs Says Audiences are Longing for an “Adult Film”

Ira Sachs’ Passages, which is expanding its release this weekend, has become known for its sex scenes, but the filmmaker believes audiences are drawn to it for a different reason.

The story of a married gay couple in Paris whose relationship unravels when one partner (Franz Rogowski) begins an affair with a woman (Adèle Exarchopoulos) includes crucial moments of intercourse that ignited discussion about the state of intimacy in American cinema, especially following the news that the MPA gave the film an NC-17 rating. The version seen now in theaters is unrated. 

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But, in a recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Sachs argues that audiences are drawn to the film less because of the sex and more because of the emotional density of its subject matter. “I feel like people are happy to see an adult film, to be honest,” Sachs says. “I’m not sure the sex is what sells the movie to a particular audience member as much as the kind of attention to the details of our adult lives.” He adds: “It’s not simple, but it’s full of pleasure. I think part of the pleasure is the lack of simplicity, to be honest.” 

Passages, a MUBI release, opens as film director Tomas (Rogowski) has just finished a shoot. During a wrap party, his husband Martin (Ben Whishaw) goes home early, and Tomas starts dancing with a schoolteacher Agathe (Exarchopoulos), which leads to a tryst. In the morning, Tomas immediately wants to share his experience having sex with a woman for the first time in a while with Martin, who is peeved by Tomas’ selfishness. What was possibly a crack in their relationship has ruptured. And yet over the course of the movie these three characters keep being drawn back into each other’s orbit, no matter how much hurt it causes them. 

Sachs, known for his character studies including 2014’s Love Is Strange, explains that he felt the film needed to be “shameless.” “Both the way the film was made, but also the way that the characters acted,” he says. “And living without shame does not mean living without causing pain. Sometimes shame is what’s necessary for society to function.” 

As far as the sex scenes went, Sachs initially had conversations with their three actors about what they were comfortable with, which then set up boundaries he would not cross. Exarchopoulos, whose breakout performance was in the sexually explicit Blue Is the Warmest Color, did not want to be nude. But actual nudity wasn’t crucial to what Sachs was trying to accomplish, which he didn’t want to be about simple binaries between different genitalia or hetero versus homosexuality. 

“That being said, there are real moments in the film where the sex, without exposing genitals, points to the most private parts of people’s bodies,” he says. “They are there without being seen, but, you know, penis, asshole, and vagina are like secondary characters in the film.” 

Sachs, always quick with a cinematic reference, was inspired by Italian director Luchino Visconti’s final film, The Innocent, as well as the work of French filmmaker Éric Rohmer, whose approach to the human body Sachs says informed his work. “That rigorous attention to human beings and human bodies is something that I really held onto in my mind when I was making the film,” he says. “Which was to see the bodies in front of me. That meant clothed and unclothed. That meant wardrobe and skin. I tried to never forget even when people were fully dressed they were made of human flesh and had human bodies.” 

It’s that human element that Sachs believes is a rarity in Hollywood—a town where he doesn’t find himself very often, both literally and figuratively. “I was in Hollywood recently and I thought, wow, I haven’t been here in like seven years,” he says. “I was talking to my friend (Oscar-nominated screenwriter) Oren Moverman and he said it’s because there’s no place for you anymore there. Movies that you make don’t exist there.” 

What kinds of movies? “I don’t see sustainable careers for filmmakers making movies about and for adults,” Sachs adds. “You’re saying like, oh, people are so happy to see sex in cinema. I think people are just happy to see people. They’re happy to see real people.”