At a quiet bar in the Hôtel Plaza Athénée, a welcome escape from a city consumed by Paris Fashion Week, director-writer Ira Sachs describes the three protagonists of his latest film, as “just animals.”   

Passages, which opened the French-American Champs-Élysées Film Festival the previous night, explores the common trope of the love triangle but with a distinctly contemporary lens. “The labels don’t work” Sachs explains, “I don’t really think of Tomas as bisexual, I think of him as sexual.” Tomas (Franz Rogowski), one of the three central characters, is a charismatic self-absorbed filmmaker, married to Martin, a far more passive, although equally successful artist played by Ben Whishaw. Their relationship starts to implode after Tomas begins an affair with Agathe (Adele Exarchopoulos), a woman he met at the wrap party of his latest film. The story depicts Tomas as he moves back and forth between Martin and Agathe, retreating to one relationship as soon as the other becomes complicated. In the process he sabotages his own life and stability as well as the happiness and sanity of his two lovers. 

Passages is as nihilistic as it sexy. I might prescribe it as a cure, for anyone who may be tempted to jump into a relationship with a self-obsessed creative. The story draws on the director’s previous filmography, as Sachs explores the familiar topics of long-term relationships and betrayal, as well as queer romance. But he explains that this film is different, as it’s one “without shame” where the characters pain isn’t the result of their homosexuality, only each other and their own actions. Sachs discussed his characters motivations, and how Passages fits into the culture surrounding queer cinema as a whole.  

Passages
A still from Passages

AH: Several of your previous films are set in New York. Why did you decide to set Passages in Paris? 

IS: Paris is a city that I feel very comfortable in, it’s a city that I spent a lot of time in when I was young, so it was formative for me. It’s a city where I’ve had relationships, breakups, tears, sex, all the things that create intimacy. So, setting this film in Paris, with these characters particularly, felt very natural. 

AH: Your film is centred around a bisexual character, Tomas, a German filmmaker played by Franz Rogowski, do you believe there is a lack of bisexual representation in contemporary cinema? 

IS: You know it funny because I wrote Passages thinking it would be a film where identity and sexual identity would be very central, but I don’t think that’s true. The labels don’t work. I don’t really think of Tomas as bisexual, I think of him as sexual. It’s almost a generational shift, where the lingo doesn’t suit the characters as much as I thought when I wrote the script. They’re just animals. There’s a quality where they are just beings, with gender as part of the characters dynamic but less their sexual dynamic, and more part of their power dynamic. 

AH: How do you view these characters economic dynamic? 

IS: Violent.  

AH: Passages focuses on the relationships between a wealthy gay male couple, Tomas and Martin (Ben Whishaw) and a female school teacher, Agathe (Adele Exarchopoulos). What do you think is more significant, the gender imbalance or the economic imbalance? 

IS: I think it’s hard to untangle them. For example, the scene in the country house, where Agathe, enters this community and family, feels like something out of a horror movie. You really want to say to her, “get out of the house!” That violence has a lot to do with masculinity, which is shared between these two men. I remember talking to Ben Whishaw, about how his character is part of the problem too, he doesn’t play an innocent role in the situation. Overall, I think one of the main tensions within the film is class, as well as privilege and power. 

AH: Would you describe Tomas’s character as a narcissist? 

IS: No. More a sociopath. Or he exhibits some sociopathic tendencies. If you have to give him a title, I would say that he believes the rules of the world are not created for him, which is a sociopathic tendency more than a narcissistic one. 

Passages
A still from Passages

AH: He does create this (I hate the word) ‘toxic’ love triangle- 

IR: I hate the word too. It’s funny they keep using it in the press. But toxic seems so dated, so narrow. By using this term, we somehow become above it, as if me as a man is not actually participating.  

AH: I agree. I guess it’s better to say that the dynamic he creates is an unhealthy one, flip flopping between his husband Martin and new lover Agathe. This causes them such pain and anxiety, yet throughout most of the film, they still go back to him, which is hauntingly realistic. Why do you think some people are so drawn to these charismatic but sociopathic characters?  

IS: I think we are drawn to what we cannot have. It’s also the construction of drama, the characters are in search of something unattainable. What is interesting about Agathe’s character is that she resists, and she refuses, and she rejects, which I think is significant. She is offered something and although she’s intrigued, she ultimately turns it down.  

Passages
A still from Passages

AH: Then would you say that all three characters play a role in their own misery? 

IS: Yes of course, I don’t think there’s a victim in the story. What is different about this film for me, is that it’s a film of utter transparency. It’s also one without shame, and there’s no punishment for homosexuality. In my other films everyone’s always a little punished. 

AH: Tomas also exhibits self-destructive behaviour throughout the story. But what motivates him, is it a desire to be loved, constantly, or a fear? 

IS: It think it’s about ambition and the ever-shifting goal post, of what fulfilment might be. I felt that during the pandemic, personally, I was destroyed by lack of a world I could compete in. I got depressed because I couldn’t compete, and I think Tomas is a character who needs to compete, he needs to be in conflict, he needs to be attaining, endlessly. Everything seems to be just out of reach. What’s fun about the film, is that you’re watching this character who seems to have a lot of power but is missing something, which makes him human and vulnerable.  

But he’s played by Franz Rogowski, someone who is super joyous, who has this fantastic energy. It helps that he’s such a pleasurable person and presence in real life, so he can embody this character who has a lot of darkness but create different shades.  

Passages
A still from Passages

AH: Something I noticed about the three main characters is their distinctive personal style. How important was clothing in the creation of these characters, and was this something you were very involved in? 

IS: I cast the film, so I’m aware of the individual qualities of the three of them. My job is play close attention to not only who the characters are but who the performers are. So, I think my attention allows you to observe them each individually, including their style. 

AH: Since the beginning of your career in the 90s, how much has the display of queer love and relationships on screen changed? 

IS: I was asking another journalist about this, who mentioned that there’s a lot of new gay films. But what was the last new gay film you saw?  

AH: Umm… 

IS: Right! I actually think the space and the economy for this cinema is getting smaller not bigger. Queer films have never been embraced by the systems of art house, the systems of the festivals. Look at the history of Cannes, look at the history of The New York Film Festival, look at the history of Venice, and show me ten films by gay filmmakers about gay subjects.  

AH: But then there are films with gay subjects directed by straight filmmakers. 

IS: Exactly, if you’re a straight person than there is an economy for the production of this cinema. But if you’re a gay person making gay films, there’s less value. These festivals are run by heterosexual men, who want to see themselves around them. Who believe that the value of our culture is white straight power. 

Passages
A still from Passages

AH: Passages is a deeply erotic and sexy film, were there any specific pieces of erotic cinema which inspired you? 

IS: Yes. Chantel Akerman’s, Ju Tu Il Elle, is one, also, Jocques Nolot’s, Avant Que J’oublie (Before I Forget). The German filmmaker Frank Ripploh directed a film called Taxi zum Klo, and of course Visconti’s The Innocent, which is super horny. All four of these directors are gay or queer. Another thing which comes to mind is anything shot by Néstor Almendros, who was a queer Cuban cinematographer who was particularly interested in the skin and the body. 

AH: Do you think there is an obvious distinction between erotic queer cinema and erotic straight cinema? 

IS: Yes, I do actually. I think you can tell. The eye and the lens is very different, as it so depends on who creates the film.