Passages Ira Sachs interview

Passages director Ira Sachs on the art of the steamy love triangle

An interview with filmmaker about labels in life and art, and creating chemistry with Franz Rogowski, Ben Whishaw and Adèle Exarchopoulos.

Ira Sachs’s striking new film Passages feels as if from another time. The parisian setting, the gorgeous costumes and the bad-tempered men all evoke a nostalgia for French ‘60s cinema. 

And yet, Belmondo or Léaud’s characters never showed up to their in-laws one hour late and wearing a crop top from the night before. Nostalgia is never as good as when it’s revised for a new generation. 

Set in Paris, Thomas (Franz Rogowski), an irascible film director, celebrates his wrap in a nightclub. When Martin (Ben Whishaw), his artist husband, goes home early, Thomas shimmies up to Agathe (Adèle Exarchopoulos). The night ends the following morning. But the drama of Passages lies not in Martin’s deception: the next day, Thomas giddily recounts his night to Martin, who, one senses, has been through this before. Sachs stages the drama of privilege in desire as Thomas darts back and forth between his lovers, each on the other side of the love triangle. Thomas’s plight is that he can have either, but he cannot have both. 

I spoke with the film’s the writer and director Ira Sachs ahead of the release of Passages.

Sarah Foulkes: Can you talk about the first scene? It sets the tone for the film in that we see how petulant and intimidating Thomas can be, but Agathe and Martin are also noticeably absent. 

Ira Sachs: I think it was important at the start of the film to establish that this is the story of a man with power because in a way, the course of the film is to slowly take that power away. So, he begins on a pedestal and he ends on the floor. 

I’m interested in my films not being autobiographies, but they are personal explorations of my place in the world. And so specifically, I share a profession with Thomas, but even more, I share a position in the world as a man with opportunities and privilege that I’m always kind of digging at. I’m trying to understand what that privilege allows me and also what consequences it has. 

SF: That’s interesting. From what I recall, there’s no mention of any labels like, straight, poly, or queer. Was that a conscious decision? 

Ira Sachs: I didn’t think about it consciously, but that being said, I thought it would turn out to be a different film than it is, meaning that I’m a 57-year-old man who has a very firm identity as a gay man, and if I suddenly had a relationship with a woman, it would mean something very different than this generation of actors in the film and characters in the film in which labels don’t really seem to be present. So the film is younger than me. If that makes sense. And it represents change in a lot of ways. I actually had this thought today that I should make the film again with three 70-year-olds.

SF: I was thinking more about this question of labels in the scene with Abad, when he says, “I’m not interested in seeing myself as a writer.” And Thomas is so threatened by the idea of not labelling himself as an artist, but he also doesn’t label himself as queer or straight. Is there this idea of your career giving you status, but your sexual orientation doesn’t?

Ira Sachs: I think in some ways one’s status is never achieved. So, in a way, what Thomas is doing in that moment is puncturing the idea that Ahad is a writer or not a writer? The film is called Passages for a reason. It’s a film about constant and ineffable transition. I think of it as like pinballs hitting each other. There’s a lot of bodies combusting. I also think of the film as an action film. It’s about movement and conflict. I guess there’s nothing fixed. And that’s also what’s wonderful about cinema is it captures the things that aren’t fixed. And that means in the course of the entire movie, but also in the course of every scene. There feels like the potential that things could go in a different direction. 

SF: Yes. I think that’s what’s so pleasurable and frustrating about the film. It’s this cycle that’s not going to leave him satisfied, ultimately. 

Ira Sachs: That being said, each scene actually changes the movie. There has to be a question in each scene of who has what and who wants something else. Each scene has a particular tension, which I think is what compels the story and engages the audience. Something is at risk in each scene. 

SF: In terms of how the film is shot, there’s a lot of obstructive framing. You rarely do shot/reverse shot facing the characters, they’re usually framed from behind.  And in both scenes in bed, Thomas is blocking Martin in one and vice versa in the next one. Was the intention to deny spectators from their interiority in some way?

Ira Sachs: It’s almost a strategy of cinema verite in a certain way, in the sense that the camera has a position, which is privileged because it’s in the room. But besides that, it can’t intrude. It’s not allowed to get between the actors. And, in that way, it’s also excluded. So the camera is included and excluded. And I think that creates a kind of intimacy and also an authenticity because you’re watching things that are happening between people who are not you. Those moments you describe are moments of acceptable accidents. It’s not like I blocked to hide. I put the camera in a place that I felt like was already very lucky. I just didn’t move the actors in order to let the camera in another way. 

SF: Something that immediately struck me about the film is just how good it looks. The film looks so good. There’s so much colour, so much luscious red. That feels quite different from cinema verite, where there’s more of a pretense of realism. 

Ira Sachs: I think if you imagine cinéma verité as seen through Godard’s Contempt. There’s many inspirations, but I think one of the sort of decisions was that it’s realistic in texture, but not realistic in form. It’s taking advantage of the pleasures of cinema, which are colour and light and emotion and a heightened sense of visual pleasure. 

And that was a decision at some point. Adele’s clothes, for example. I could have chosen the clothes of an everyday Parisian elementary school teacher, but instead, I chose the clothes of Bridgette Bardot. She’s really dressed like Bardot and because I’m drawing attention to the iconic quality of her face, of her body, of her presence in cinema. And I think that’s why it’s a movie, you know. It is a movie. 

I also worked with an amazing French Canadian cinematographer Josée Deshaies, who is a master of light and of bodies in space. 


SF: You mentioned in an interview that you look for actors that are naturalistic but also cinematic. Could you expand on that? Does cinematic acting imply a kind of heightened stillness? 

Ira Sachs: For some reason, I think of John Travolta, who I always found such an interesting movie star because I noticed that he could make picking up a cup of coffee seem extremely important, but did so as if he was a human being. Right. He’s not a superhero. That’s a quality you see in Vivian Leigh. You see it beautifully in Elizabeth Taylor, I think may be the greatest film actress, or actor ever. Because there’s this way to make the things that seem most familiar to us, suddenly monumental. 

SF: So every moment is, if not pre-thought, then it’s at least paid attention to. Is that it? 

Ira Sachs: I think in the kind of work I’m doing, it’s actively not pre-thought, but it’s made meaningful. But you don’t see the work. Then there’s this kind of naturalistic part, which is how do these actors work with the dialogue? And for me, I’m drawn to actors who you can’t tell how they get from silence to language. You just don’t even notice. It becomes one. 

SF: Yeah. Speech is just an extension of the silence. 

Ira Sachs: That’s right. It doesn’t happen out of nowhere. It comes from somewhere. Judy Dench being a very beautiful example. The way that the words flow is just without effort, but with beauty. And Adele is really something in those terms, in the sense that you can’t notice what she’s doing, but she’s doing something which takes her to a heightened place. 

SF: The three of them just have this incredible chemistry. 

Ira Sachs: They liked each other. It’s funny because I’ve been on film sets where that’s not true, and I don’t think the audience notices, but I think when it’s true, something else can happen. And they also challenge each other. I don’t rehearse before I start shooting, and every day is kind of like,” I wonder what’s going to happen.” So there’s a way in which they very quickly raised the bar for the others. They weren’t competitive, but they were inspired. 

SF: I want to speak about the three characters. You get the sense that Martin is more devastated than Thomas about Agathe’s abortion. There’s almost this sense that Agathe is a surrogate for them. How do you think Thomas and Martin’s affluence and influence affect their relationship with Agathe?

Ira Sachs: I’m glad you mentioned something that was very significant to me. The nature of their privilege as two men who bring a woman into their home and then disregard her. So for me, the scene in the country house is a horror movie. You really wanna say to these guys, “Let her go.” You wanna say Agathe, “Get out of the house.” I don’t know if you know the film Fox and His Friends.

SF: Yes. 

Ira Sachs: So to me, Agathe is like the Fassbinder character in Fox and his Friends. She’s brought into the home of two wealthy gay men. And she’s treated badly by both of them. There was a moment when Ben on set noticed what Martin was doing. And he was struck by the violence of the scene as a person, not as a character. He was willing to go there, but it was a very violent scene. She disappears with some amount of disregard for a woman. You know, there’s kind of gender violence going on to me in that moment. I recommend a really great movie I saw that came out in Spain because I’m thinking about gender, which is called Creatura. I really want people to watch it. I think you would find this movie interesting. It’s by Elena Martin. Keep your eyes open for it. ■

Passages (directed by Ira Sachs)

Passages opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Aug 18.

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