‘Passages’ Is One of the Year’s Best Films — and in a Ratings Battle – Rolling Stone

“I wanted to make a movie of pleasure,” offers Ira Sachs. “For me, that means skin is revealed. Skin is part of what cinema can offer in a way that creates a kind of… horny environment for the audience and the actors.”

Sachs, the veteran indie filmmaker behind intimate dramas like Forty Shades of Blue and Love Is Strange, is discussing his stellar latest, Passages, about a libertine director in Paris, Tomas (Franz Rogowski), who decides to have an affair with a woman, Agathe (Adéle Exarchopoulos), despite being in a long-term relationship with Martin (Ben Whishaw). This reckless ménage à trois turns all three of their lives upside down.

The German actor Rogowski, star of films like the one-shot Victoria and Michael Haneke’s Happy End, is a revelation here — a paragon of unbridled narcissism and casual cruelty who sows chaos with his pouty allure, accentuated by some truly stunning sartorial choices. It’s one of the best performances of the year so far, and anchors Sachs’ complex study of sex and desire.

Unfortunately, the film ran afoul of the pearl-clutching, sex-hating censors over at the MPAA, who slapped it with an NC-17 rating, limiting its theatrical prospects. But Sachs and distributor Mubi held strong and refused to appease the ratings board for their bogus decision.

Sachs talked about the ratings fracas and much more with Rolling Stone.

I wanted to talk about Passages’ NC-17 rating. I’ve done some stories in the past about how ridiculous the MPAA’s ratings system is, and how they have no problem with violence yet are eager to censor anything regarding sex — in particular LGBT sex.
Why does our progressive industry accept the MPAA? That’s really the basis of this. Why am I talking to the MPAA? Who are the MPAA?

It reminds me of the Code Era.
Why do we accept this? It is the Code Era! It began with the Catholic Church, then it was the Hays Code, then it was the MPAA. Why does this still exist? I think that, because I’m in a little bit of a storm with this, I’m wondering: Where did the storm begin? How did the mission get here?

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Director Ira Sachs poses at the Barcelo Torre Hotel on July 24, 2023, in Madrid, Spain.

Gustavo Valiente/Europa Press via Getty Images

I believe they hit Brandon Cronenberg’s Infinity Pool with an NC-17 rating because it showed a penis ejaculating.
Yes. Then he recut it and resubmitted it. But American Pie gets an R rating? Masturbation by men seems allowed, but masturbation by women seems unfortunate to the MPAA.

What cuts did the MPAA demand of you to get an R rating?
They didn’t demand a cut. It wasn’t on the table. I wasn’t engaging, and Mubi wasn’t asking me to engage. There’s no way to remake a film this free in a way that’s unfree. That’s why I’m an independent filmmaker.

It’s odd for the MPAA to take issue with the sex scenes in Passages, because they’re all so tender and beautiful. It’s hard to understand the objection other than that it’s coming from a very closed-minded place.
I think you’re giving them too much credit to even try to understand the objection. You have to ask the basic question: Why do they exist? You can’t argue with ridiculousness, and you also can’t argue with reactionary impulses. All you can do is change the system. The MPAA is “unnamed parents.” The idea that it’s defined as “unnamed parents” seems, to me, particularly creepy. As if parents have some moral right to decide what should be seen?

There is a sex scene late in the film between Franz and Ben that is so realistic in its mix of passion and tenderness. And it is shot in an unbroken take. It seemed true to life, and unlike anything I’d seen in a film in some time.
I’m at the mercy of the actors, meaning I set up the situation of camera and body placement and then they tell the story. And how they tell the story is not that different from another scene in which dialogue is not central. I benefit from these exceptional storytellers, really, because they’re not having sex. They’re just mimicking the behavior of sex in a way that’s full of detail. In the long take, there are a lot of periods, commas, and exclamation points. They’re providing the storyline in something that I can only hope for.

I found myself staring both at the ridges on Ben’s lower back and also at Franz’s hand, which kept creeping around Ben’s backside.  
The position of the camera allows you to be in the room, but not in the action. Both the intimacy and the exclusion feel charged. On occasion, I’ve gotten to talk to actors about the experience of shooting a scene like that. But to me, I have to imagine what their experience shooting a scene like that is like. I’m not privy.

Many of your films have been set in your adopted home of New York City. What made you want to make this intimate character study set in Paris?
I wanted to make an intimate film, and the kind of story of everyday life and human tenderness that I feel desperate to see in the cinemas. I also wanted to make an actors’ film — a film that really focused on what actors can do when they reveal themselves to each other and to the audience. I wanted to make a film like the films that got me interested in cinema. I’m thinking of Cassavetes.

How did Paris, and working with this cast of international actors, help shape the film?
I’ve often worked with non-American actors, so that felt very familiar, and these were people I really admired and trusted. I’ve also been supported in France in the last few years. My producer there loves the same kind of personal cinema that I do, so I feel fortunate to have that kind of patronage. I made a film about intimate relationships, often within homes and bedrooms, but also one that has intimate moments that are activated by the city itself. What I tried to do, in every realm of the film, was to experience and share pleasure. That meant costume, color, light, pain, sex, and skin, but it also meant the pleasures of French cinema that have been so important to me. I’m thinking of Godard, I’m thinking of Eustache, I’m thinking of Chantal Akerman. Also, the use of color in Contempt, for example, and in Fassbinder. I think I was making a realistic film but also a piece of unreal cinema. I try not to be bound by the everyday.

You mention pain, sex, and skin, and these are things that have largely disappeared from cinema. Much of cinema has become sanitized. It’s part of the reason why I found Passages so refreshing.
Well, that has to do with globalization and the market. It’s ruled by the idea of creating images that can be digestible in any corner of the world without any conflict. That’s desexing. It’s better to make toothpaste!

What have you found the process of getting your films financed and made in 2023 to be like, as the market for independent cinema appears to be shrinking?
I feel fortunate to have sustained a career making independent cinema, which is pretty rare for my generation. I’m also grateful to companies like Mubi and Neon and A24 and Sony Classics and Magnolia and the people who still love the same kind of cinema that I do. It seems to me that if this kind of movie is rare, we’re in trouble. Because it used to be the dominant kind of storytelling that brought people to the cinema, which is: artists revealing themselves. Movies made for kids are now the movies adults want to go to. And I want to make adult movies.

Ira Sachs PASSAGES Still 1 Ben Whishaw and Franz Rogowski – Courtesy MUBI

Ben Whishaw as Martin and Franz Rogowski as Tomas in ‘Passages,’ a film by Ira Sachs.


It’s a strange time to be releasing your movie into the world with the ongoing actors’ and writers’ strikes. Some have called this an inflection point in the industry, but how do you feel about it?
It’s a crisis. I think what’s lost is the day-to-day impact on the writers, and the actors, and all the people who are brought together to make a movie. They’re being held ransom, in a certain way, by the studios’ unwillingness to move toward a resolution and to listen to what’s being asked for. It’s really a crisis in terms of the community, but really for individuals. That’s what seems to be so significant.

Much of Passages hinges on Franz’s sex appeal. His Tomas is this destructive, magnetic, wildly seductive force.
I saw Franz in Michael Haneke’s Happy End where he performs a brilliant karaoke version of Sia’s “Chandelier,” so I had no concern about his sex appeal — which I agree with you is really important. There’s a distance between Franz and Tomas in that they’re not the same person, in the way that James Cagney is not the same person as he plays in Public Enemy. That distance is where the cinematic pleasure, humor, and joy exists that makes for compelling film actors. With Franz, the charisma and the intelligence is so palpable that I knew the audience would have the same pleasure I did. It’s a combination of intelligence, looks, and mystery. Something withheld. It’s true of Franz, but it’s also true of Adele. She’s with you in the room, but she’s also somewhere else.

What do you feel Passages says about sexual desire?
We’re born naked and we go from there. Actors sharing their most intimate moments onscreen is beautiful, and that doesn’t have to be sex. It could be singing a song. Agathe sings a song her father taught her as a child, and to me that’s an extremely exposed scene. Looking for moments of tenderness and violence is, for me, central to my job as an artist.


I know the industry is at a standstill right now, but do you know what’s next for you?
I’m working on a short film about the photographer Peter Hujar and a feature about the musician Arthur Russell.

I’ve enjoyed Kirsten Johnson’s films, including Dick Johnson Is Dead, where you and your partner make an appearance. Was this film lightly inspired by your co-parenting relationship with Kirsten?
Hmm! This kind of family situation is part of my life and part of the everyday for me, so of course I’m drawing upon those experiences. I think I make movies that are personally activated without necessarily being autobiographical.

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