Ira Sachs on his backwards-looking search for personal cinema

Film | Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Friday 6

Filmmaker Ira Sachs has made a career in Hollywood’s outskirts, and it shows. His movies are anti-formulaic, and his subjects rarely seen in mainstream cinema.

Whether it’s the impact of home affordability on human relations or the life-changing properties of an afternoon sightseeing, Sachs has a finger on the pulse of the everyday forces that shape us.

More importantly, Sachs has pushed the borders of queer cinema. His LGBTQ+ characters are complex, compelling and far more textured than the stereotypes the industry works with: a mature couple realizes the welfare system isn’t designed for them (Love Is Strange); early teens encounter same-sex attraction for the first time (Little Men); young twosomes come to terms with relationship imbalance (The Delta; Keep the Lights On). All deeper explorations of gay life than we’re used to.

Sachs’ latest comes not only from outside the studio system. It gives it the finger.

One of 2023’s best films, Passages revolves around Tomas (Franz Rogowski, a favorite of Haneke and Malick), a filmmaker just off wrapping his latest film. He’s abrasive and difficult but undeniably magnetic. Left adrift by the end of the shoot, Tomas cheats on his long-time partner Martin (Ben Whishaw) with a middle-school teacher, Agatha (Adèle Exarchopoulos channeling Brigitte Bardot in Contempt). By the time he realizes his mistake, Agatha is pregnant and Martin has moved on.

Sachs doesn’t just dare to explore a complicated love triangle — he doesn’t shy away from sex scenes to give us a full picture. For his troubles, the MPAA in the U.S. slapped Passages with an NC-17, the rating reserved for porn, basically. Rather than accept such ruling, Sachs released the film unrated.

This is my third time interviewing Ira Sachs and his films have gotten progressively more French since I first met him. His previous one, Frankie, had Isabelle Huppert as the lead. Now Passages takes place in Paris and it’s mostly in la langue française.

Would you have been able to make Passages in the US?

The story could have been set in the States, but I’m not sure if the funding would have been there. This kind of personal cinema has become more difficult to sustain. The idea that this film is unusual because it’s about human relationships says a lot about the state of cinema today.

You don’t even see sex in movies anymore. It’s not even part of the characters’ lives in mainstream cinema.

That’s why we’ve got to keep going back in time. I watched Taxi Zum Klo (a film about gay culture in West Berlin in the early ’80s) three times in the last month just to remind myself of what kind of images are possible. Let’s watch more Pasolini and Fassbinder and remember we’re defined by our culture, but not controlled by it.

When you were writing Tomas, a character both enticing and repulsive, did you have Franz Rogowski in mind?

I did. I saw Michael Haneke’s film Happy End and I was captivated by Franz’ performance. He was in my mind when we began writing the script (with frequent collaborator Mauricio Zacharias) as a form of inspiration. When talking about this character, it’s worth mentioning the long lineage of antiheroes that have defined American cinema: James Cagney, Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire… Drama is made of people who act badly.

In the first minutes of the film, we see Tomas wrapping up a shoot and feeling unmoored. Is this a feeling you recognize? How do you manage?

You have a lot of power on a set. You tell people what to do and they obey. Once you’re done shooting, that’s no longer true. My way to cope is different than Tomas’: I don’t act out sexually, but I have to remember to pay attention to others.

Passages has a pulse, unlike most movies I’ve seen lately. What did you do on set to achieve this?

When Franz Rogowski saw the first cut of the film, he said “I don’t know what it is, but it has a soul.” The dialogue, the characters and the story exist, but everything else was discovered at the moment of shooting. That’s the thrill of cinema. You create an atmosphere not unlike a therapy room, where there’s trust and confidence between patient and analyst, but also an endless amount of space to discover.

How did you build trust between you and the actors (Rogowski and Whishaw) to shoot that pivotal sex scene?

It begins on the first day. I don’t think they would have done the film if they didn’t feel they could trust me. On set this was a particularly joyful occasion. Every day there was the potential to discover something totally new. It created an atmosphere of experimentation free of inhibition. ■