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'Passages': A film of intimacy, and an NC-17 rating

‘Passages’ is about a filmmaker who recklessly embarks on a romance with a schoolteacher, wrecking his relationship with his husband

Adèle Exarchopoulos and Franz Rogowski in 'Passages'. Image via AP
Adèle Exarchopoulos and Franz Rogowski in 'Passages'. Image via AP

Ira Sachs never set out to make an NC-17-rated film.

The New York-based, 57-year-old filmmaker of sharply observed independent films ( "Love Is Strange,"“Little Men” ) was compelled to create, as he says, “a film of intimacy.” “Passages,” Sachs' ninth feature, would be his first film coming out of the pandemic and he craved a closeness and tenderness that had been missing from both life and American movies.

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“I really wanted to make a horny film,” Sachs said in a recent interview from Spain, where he was receiving an award. “Like, a film that gave pleasure and was about pleasure. And part of that pleasure is about sex but also the pleasure of cinema. Color and light and texture and skin and bodies. They’re all these things that cinema can activate different than any other art form.”

“Passages,” which opens in select US theatres on Friday and will play on MUBI in India soon, stars the heralded young German actor Franz Rogowski as Tomas, a Paris-based filmmaker who recklessly embarks on a romance with a French schoolteacher Agatha (Adèle Exarchapoulos), wrecking his relationship with his husband, Martin (Ben Whishaw).

“I had sex with a woman,” Tomas tells Martin the morning after meeting Agatha in a nightclub. “Can I tell you about it please?"

Tomas’ instinctual but reckless actions cause havoc with the hearts of all three. The triangle evolves in fleshy and emotional detail, tracking their evolutions of attraction, love, sex, dependence and exasperation. Desire and passion plays a central role – most would say a highly realistic one – in the characters' lives and in the fabric of Sachs' sexy, messy and brutally honest drama.

Though nothing graphic is ever shown, the lingering lovemaking scenes – particularly one between Tomas and Martin — led the Motion Picture Association to slap “Passages” with its highest rating. An NC-17 rating precludes anyone under 17 from being admitted, with or without a parent of guardian. Sachs is highly critical of the decision, calling it homophobic, outdated and disconnected from the essence of his film.

“What concerns me is the warning shot a rating like that gives to other filmmaker about what images will be allowed without punishment,” Sachs says.

“The censorship of queer images exists from top to bottom,” he adds. “It’s not just the MPA. It’s also what films are financed, what films are supported by festivals, what films get bought, what films get shown. So I think the system is one of limits. And I feel grateful that I was able to make a film outside of those limits.”

The arthouse distributor MUBI, which acquired “Passages” after its acclaimed premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, rejected the NC-17 label and is instead releasing “Passages” as “unrated.”

The MPA says its Classification and Rating Administration simply rates movies based on “what happens on screen and how it is depicted."

“The sexual orientation of a character or characters is not considered as part of the rating process,” an MPA spokesperson said in a statement.

NC-17 ratings are rarely applied. Last year’s Marilyn Monroe biopic “Blonde,” on Netflix, drew a lot of notoriety for earning such a rating. Some films elect to keep it while others are instead distributed without a rating. Ratings battles can help gin up publicity, but an unrated or NC-17 film is also closed off of screening or advertising in numerous places.

For Sachs, “Passages” harkens back to an older, mostly European approach to filmmaking. Sachs, son of Park City, Utah, developer Ira Sachs Sr., was born in Memphis, Tennessee but considers French films “my cousins and my aunts and my uncles.” While writing “Passages” he watched Chantel Akerman’s “Je Tue Il Elle" (1974), Luchino Visconti’s “The Innocent” (1976) and Frank Ripploh’s “Taxi zum Klo" (1981).

“You have to go back in time to remember what you have permission to shoot,” says Sachs.

"We live in a repressed culture,” the director adds. “You can’t be fully outside of that culture, but you can remind yourself that there are there are doorways that you can walk through that take you somewhere else.”

A portal to “Passages” was Rogowski, the soulful, beguiling screen presence of Christian Petzold’s “Transit” (2018) and Terrence Malick’s “A Hidden Life" (2019). After Sachs saw him in Michael Haneke’s “Happy End" (2017), he says, “I was turned on." Sachs wrote “Passages” with Rogowski in mind.

Sachs, whose 2014 film “Love Is Strange” starred John Lithgow and Alfred Molina as a longtime couple who decide to wed, often makes films crammed with autobiography. Tomas, he grants, has many similarities with himself. (The film Tomas is shooting is titled “Passages.”) The overarching theme of Sachs' work, he says, is an attempt to “take a look at myself and the role I play in life and try to understand the ways in which I can be dangerous to others."

“Tomas has a hard time being his own friend and that often makes him not see his partner’s needs or other people’s boundaries,” Rogowski says. “Once I understood that, it was a lot of fun to create all this chaos and inflict so much fictional pain on fictional characters.”

A key aspect to “Passages,” Rogowski notes, is its humor. In one memorable sequence — an all-time meet-the-parents scene — Tomas returns straight from a night with Martin to Agatha's apartment. He's still wearing a sheer black mesh top when he belatedly sits down to meet Agatha’s father and mother.

“It’s not just a narcissist causing trouble,” says Rogowski. “It’s also a very funny costume party.”

Rogowski likewise finds the NC-17 rating absurd. Anyone over the age of 12, he says, knows about sex. “Just have fun on Google for five minutes and you know how it works," he jokes.

“It’s weird that you can see brains exploding in action movies but you cannot see two men having sex. It’s absurd to me and also a little bit sad,” Rogowski adds. “These ratings to me don’t feel like they’re protecting younger audiences. To me, they feel like they’re protecting the values of very old people.”

Nevertheless, “Passages" is now branded as something illicit and daring despite being, as Sachs says, “a film about real people doing real things.” But that may be enough to make it exceptional.

“It’s a provocation in a certain way,” says Sachs. “But less because I think I’m doing anything at all radical.”

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