Why Ira Sachs Made the Horniest NC-17 Film of the Year

“I had sex with a woman. Can I please talk with you about it?”

With that, writer-director Ira Sachs launches his audience into Passages, his new tangled-web wonder: an erotic, sexy-as-hell, mind-meld of a film that’s at once a wet-dream masterpiece about passion, a psycho-torture nightmare about the complexities of connection and intimacy, and, above all, an absolute riot.

Its premiere at Sundance in January sent festivalgoers into the Park City snow to cool off. Its unrated release in theaters this past weekend, after Sachs rejected the MPAA’s NC-17 rating, emboldened its fierce champions (critics gave the film a 93 percent Rotten Tomatoes approval) to recommend the film even more feverishly.

The line is bluntly delivered by actor Franz Rogowski, who plays Tomas, one point in Passages’ deliriously fascinating love triangle. He’s a filmmaker who, after being annoyed that his “pain in the ass” husband Martin (Ben Whishaw) wasn’t fun at his latest project’s wrap party, sleeps with Agathe (Adèle Exarchopoulos), who was. We see all of that unfold before Tomas, after not returning home until the morning after, says this to Martin. But it’s his unflinching directness that lands like an anvil. The exchange is searing humanity by way of Looney Tunes. As an audience member you’re so shocked, there’s no natural, normal reaction—so you laugh.

Sachs is one of indie cinema’s greatest filmmakers, who explores sex and relationships in films like Keep the Lights On and Love Is Strange in an apparently renegade fashion: the characters having sex and who are in relationships are queer.

You’ll alternately swoon, cringe, cackle, become enraged, and be incredibly turned on as Tomas, Martin, and Agathe navigate both the mundane details and the dynamite sticks of their suddenly interconnected love lives. And it’s that arousal that’s become a major talking point about Passages. As Sachs told me when we met in New York City just ahead of the film’s release, “I wanted to make a horny film.” (Mission accomplished.)

At a time when truly hot sex scenes are endangered entities in cinema, Sachs delivers two all-time great ones in Passages. One, featuring Tomas and Martin, is so long and so realistic—as in it actually looks like two gay men having sex, not Hollywood’s typically sanitized version of it—that it is likely the reason for the proposed NC-17 rating. When you watch the film…well, first you’ll want to run out and have sex immediately yourself. But then you’ll wonder what egregiously homophobic and prudish reason could there be to think that the scene wouldn’t fall under the umbrella of any other R-rated content we see.

We chatted with Sachs about all of that and more in our conversation below.

What was it like for you to watch that first Sundance screening?

I’d say, most simply, I didn’t realize I made a social comedy.

Until people were laughing?

Yeah. I think people’s relationship to the intensity of the film and the bad behavior in the film is liberating. I feel like people are watching a movie and they’re talking back to the screen in a way that’s super engaged.

To the laughing aspect of this, I remember when Tomas says, “I had sex with a woman. Can I please talk with you about it?” It was just so blunt that I think the only thing to do was to laugh.

I really wanted to make a film about pleasure. And I think part of the pleasure is someone playing out desires and acting in ways that aren’t acceptable. For the audience, it’s a trigger and a fantasy.

A photo of Franz Rogowski and Adèle Exarchopoulos in 'Passages'

It’s sort of like wishing you had the balls to act that way, but also being so grateful that you know not to act that way.

That’s right. And in that way [Franz] is a little like Trump, but likable and charming. For me, what gave me this kind of permission—and I think this worked for Franz as well—was thinking about actors and performances from people like James Cagney, who, in almost all his films, played a really bad guy. But so beautifully.

I remember you saying at the Sundance premiere that this movie was born out of your experience in the pandemic. In what way?

I felt isolated. I felt a lack of intimacy. I also really worried that the kind of cinema that I love most wouldn’t exist when the lockdown was over. That is a cinema of tenderness and of human relationships, a kind of handmade cinema that I hungered for as an audience member. And I continue to. I wanted to make a film like the films that got me passionate about cinema. I also knew that I wanted to make a horny film, because I wanted to turn people on. Because I think that’s part of the responsibility of a filmmaker.

I wanted to make a horny film, because I wanted to turn people on.

In what way?

You’re creating a relationship between an image and a spectator. Eros is central to that relationship. For me, there’s the erotic [nature] of sex, but there’s also color and beauty and light and intimacy. These are all things that are tangible when you watch a film like this. I think of this as an action film. It’s a film in which bodies combust. To me, those are all elements that I go to the movies for. I want to be turned on. I want to be stimulated. I want there to be suspense. I want there to be a possibility for anything to happen.

It’s very experiential in a way that some people might be surprised by.

It’s a calling card for a certain kind of cinema, which I think is rooted in John Cassavetes. It’s rooted in, specifically, the films of Chantal Akerman, in terms of these are films that the director and the actors are not concerned about exposing themselves. They want to be seen. And you could say that’s the opposite to the Marvel Universe, right?

Yes, I would say Passages is the opposite to the Marvel Universe.

Instead of making films in which people are covered and people’s sexuality disappears, we’re making films in which people are naked. I think there’s a resistance to the cinema of globalization and lack of specificity. There is no world that looks like the Marvel world. So these films [like Passages] seem like, “Oh, that’s strange. You just made a film about your own life.” But to me, that’s why we make movies.

I was struck by how much Tomas and Martin’s sex scene struck me. Even now in 2023—and even for me, a person who has watched and written about these kinds of scenes my whole professional life—it still seemed remarkable to watch a male-male sex scene in a film that was this realistic. If it was that remarkable to me as a viewer, it must have been remarkable for you, Franz, and Ben as well.

Franz and Ben are two guys who are comfortable with their bodies, and who also embrace sex as part of their lives in a way that they think is important. I just was on a panel with the actor who was the star of Mutt. It was great to listen to him talk about the sex in that film, because it was a story that I couldn’t have imagined. Not that it was an extraordinary story. It was just particular to his experience of what it was like to kiss this other guy and what he felt.

Franz and Ben would have to speak more to that, but when I’m shooting a sex scene, it only works if the actors give it to me. I can’t make it happen without them. So there’s always this risk that it won’t happen. You don’t really know until you start shooting whether it’s going to be interesting. But I had these actors who made things happen.

There is no world that looks like the Marvel world.

When I was writing about this movie at Sundance, I was wrestling with the fact the movie is about so much more than sex, but I knew that headlines—mine included—would be all about the sex. But then I thought, this movie is very much about sex. It’s an interesting tension between not wanting to reduce something to just sex, but also realizing that sex is integral to the relationships and themes in this film.

I think you’ve described it well. Sex is part of the story, just in the way that it’s part of these characters’ and part of these actors’ lives. For me, if the film is interesting, you can’t reduce any element to something simple. You could say the film is about power. You could say the film is about gender. You could say the film is about artists. You could say the film is about skin. If you read a good novel, you don’t end up saying it’s about one thing. It’s about everything and the opposite. So I’m trying to create the possibility for contradiction.

Then, of course, when the MPAA makes a decision that the film should be rated NC-17, the conversation becomes very much about the sex.

I think the MPAA is trying to, as censorship always does, send a warning shot to other filmmakers that they should beware of certain kinds of imagery, because they will be punished. That’s what an NC-17 rating is: a form of punishment. Right?

A photo of Franz Rogowski and Adèle Exarchopoulos in 'Passages'

Not to harp on the realism of that sex scene, but when I first watched it, besides it being hot, there was never a question to me of “is this going to test the censors” or “is this obscene” or “is this going to be definitely rated NC-17.” It just was realistic-looking.

In Spain, it’s being released with a recommendation of 12+. We live in a particular culture. In some ways, a moment like this— particularly active culture like this—draws our attention to the nature of our culture, which is the nature of repression, and homophobia, and sex negativity, and bullshit.

I imagine it has to be an interesting experience to be a person who just made a film about relationships and intimacy, which now has this rating controversy accompanying it. Was there ever a feeling like you were being branded a sex fiend, or something like that?

I don’t feel that way. You know, my mother saw the film, and she liked it. That’s all that matters to me. The thing is, I make images in my films that are harder for me to talk about in everyday life. And so my films, in a way, are moments of liberation, where I’m able to be some full version of myself, with the collaboration of these amazing people. I mean, really, I couldn’t make a sexy movie without sexy people.

I’ve talked with a lot of people about how uncontrollably attracted we are to Franz, despite his behavior and knowing he could possibly ruin our lives.

But they’re attracted to someone playing Tomas. He’s no Donald Trump. You would be repelled by someone who uses power in that way if they weren’t played by someone so charming and wonderful, with a great sense of humor. To me, James Cagney in White Heat is a good example of how beautiful somebody can be while playing a terrible sociopath. But that’s because James Cagney was a beautiful man. So there’s something about the distinction. You’re not watching a documentary. Right? You’re watching a performance, and the performance is full of pleasure.

A photo of Ben Whishaw and Adèle Exarchopoulos in 'Passages'

Starting with Keep the Lights On, I watched your films in real time when they came out, so they’re very much a part of my understanding of how queer relationships can be put on screen. But do you think of those movies in conversation with each other? Do you see that same sort of progression?

I notice similarities, and I notice differences. The thing that strikes me about Passages is that it’s not a film of identity. It’s also not a film of shame. That’s unlike Keep the Lights On, which is just fueled by shame. This is a film in which everything is out in the open. And I think that’s progress.

It doesn’t make things easy, but it’s a different set of problems than maybe I had at the age that these characters are. I think the liberation of the images is relevant to someone like you. The images give you permission to live your life in a different way. That’s what movies have done for me. That gave me the option of making this kind of movie. They make me feel more free, and I think that’s thrilling. And I think as gay people, we still really are denied that freedom, and particularly in narrative cinema.

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