New Times,
New Thinking.

  1. Culture
  2. Film
25 August 2023

Passages is Ira Sachs’s “horny film”

The director’s art-house film concerns a catastrophic ménage-a-trois.

By David Sexton

Over the last 25 years Ira Sachs has made a series of independently financed films about the intimacies of gay life, “shoe-string heart-tuggers”, as one trade mag blithely put it. He himself prefers to call them “personal cinema”, rather than art house, but art house they are.

Highlights include the highly autobiographical Keep the Lights On (2012), about a film-maker’s long relationship with a faithless addict, which includes a memorable scene in which the forlorn lover endures witnessing his boyfriend smoking crack and having sex with a rent boy in a hotel room, and the more gentle Love is Strange (2014), in which a couple played by John Lithgow and Alfred Molina see their many years of happiness together unravel as a direct result of them finally getting married. “In my films, if there’s one through-line, it’s men behaving badly,” Sachs has said.

Passages, set in Paris, is the story of a catastrophic ménage-a-trois. Tomas (Franz Rogowski), another film-maker, is married to Martin (Ben Whishaw), an English printmaker. At the wrap party for Tomas’s latest movie, the highly domesticated Martin goes home early and the much more feral Tomas connects on the dance floor with a sexy schoolteacher, Agathe (Adèle Exarchopoulos), and spends the night with her.

Rolling home next morning, Tomas bluntly says: “I had sex with a woman. Can I tell you about it?” Martin, although far from pleased, supposes it’s just another bump in the road. “This always happens when you finish a film, you just forget,” he says. But then Tomas, a man who assumes he can have anything he wants regardless of consequences, moves in with Agathe, while continuing to have sex with Martin. Not only does he not care about the havoc he is wreaking, he has the callousness to reprove his victim: “You could say you’re happy for me. You’re my brother, Martin!”

In the most painful sequence, Tomas and Martin invite Agathe to their place in the country and she hears them through the walls noisily making love, before Tomas returns, unembarrassed, to her bed.

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
THANK YOU

[See also: Zadie Smith: The reluctant historical novelist]

Sachs has said the inspiration for this film was being wowed by Rogowski’s amazing turn in Michael Haneke’s Happy End, in which he throws himself all round the dance floor to Sia’s “Chandelier”. “I felt creatively and erotically turned on,” says Sachs, who wanted to make “a horny film”. Rogowski, superfit, has incredible energy and magnetism, his eyes alight, his natural lisp exaggerated, a pure predator. Sachs admits that Tomas is a sociopath, even a bit of a Trump, but hopes that his allure makes him irresistible to viewers nonetheless, a bad guy with charm, like James Cagney at his best. I found him more like one of the villains destined for an early and crunchy exit in a Liam Neeson thriller, but tastes do differ.

There are three extended sex scenes in Passages, two between Tomas and Martin evidently filmed in a single take. Sachs has a distinctive ethical approach to this filming, not allowing the camera to get between the actors, but having it regard them in the room, so that we’re both present and observing the couple but also to some extent excluded, not allowed to project ourselves. The action is explicit, the viewpoint not. He never goes for the lazy fallback of to-and-fro cuts. A scene in which Martin screws Tomas shows us mainly Whishaw’s back and bottom: slender, lithe and sinuous in motion – beautiful, even if it’s as well not to think too much of Paddington Bear at this moment.

Sachs is much less interested in the physicality of Agathe, clearly agreeing with Schopenhauer about which is the more aesthetic sex, and professing never even to have seen Exarchopoulos in Blue is the Warmest Colour. In Agathe’s scene with Tomas, he pleasures her with his hand, looking on in detached curiosity. With its keen focus on male bodies, the film provides the male heterosexual viewer with an insight into what watching a film made with the usual male gaze must be like for women.

Passages is lean, effective drama, with minimal dialogue, always in the middle of things, not offering explanatory beginnings or ends. But it is not as convincing about bisexuality as gay sex. Sachs, 57, maintains that the generation this film is about (Whishaw is 42, Rogowski 37, Exarchopoulos 29) doesn’t look at labels, or feel constrained by identities, in the same way his generation does. “The film is younger than me,” he hopes. But watching Passages, it is hard not to conclude that what that encouraging word “polycule” really leads to is a bloody car crash.

“Passages” is in cinemas

[See also: In The Last Waltz it’s Joni Mitchell who mesmerises]

Content from our partners
An innovative approach to regional equity
ADHD in the criminal justice system: a case for change – with Takeda
The power of place in tackling climate change

Topics in this article : , ,

This article appears in the 30 Aug 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Tax Con