When Ira Sachs’ new movie “Passages” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, critics couldn’t stop talking about the sex scenes. The movie, a drama set in Paris about a film director who leaves his longtime boyfriend for a young woman, featured an all-star European art-house cast — Franz Rogowski (“Transit,” “Great Freedom”), Ben Whishaw (“The Lobster,” “Little Joe”) and Adèle Exarchopoulos (“Blue is the Warmest Color”) — negotiating infidelity and betrayal. And having graphic sex.
Those scenes led the M.P.A. to give the film a surprise NC-17 rating. The filmmakers opted to release the film in the United States without such a classification, a move that may limit the number of theaters willing to show the film when it comes out on Aug. 4.
There has been fierce debate in recent years about the role of sex scenes in movies. Following the MeToo movement’s reckoning with gender inequality and sexual misbehavior, some have asked whether it is still possible to film such intimate acts without putting performers into precarious situations. More recently, some Gen-Z social media users have argued that sex scenes are unnecessary and should be excised from cinema more broadly.
In two joint video interviews, between Whishaw and Rogowski, and Rogowski and Exarchopoulos, the actors discussed their experiences making the movie and its approach to sexuality and intimacy. (The interview with Whishaw, who is a member of SAG-AFTRA, was conducted before the actors’ strike began.)
Exarchopoulos noted that her career had been shaped early on by the depiction of sex onscreen. One of her first films, “Blue is the Warmest Color,” a portrait of a lesbian relationship that won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 2013, faced pushback from some critics who argued that the film’s graphic sex scenes objectified its stars. Exarchopoulos and her co-star, Léa Seydoux, later said that the director’s treatment of them during the shoot had made them feel uncomfortable and disrespected.
Nevertheless, Exarchopoulos said she believed that sex scenes — and those of “Passages” in particular — were often crucial to movies for depicting relationships. “Sex is a huge part of a character’s life,” she said. “Blue is the Warmest Color” had taught her “how having sex, or not having sex, and your relationship with your body, is a conversation and says a lot about who you are and who you are trying to be,” she said.
Her character in “Passages” — a schoolteacher named Agathe who embarks on an affair with Tomas (Rogowski), after meeting him at a wrap party for his film — wants to “test her limits,” she said. As an actress, the biggest challenge was finding new ways of depicting intimacy onscreen, given her early performance in “Blue is the Warmest Color” and its emphasis on sex: “I don’t want to bore people, showing myself the same way,” she said.
Rogowski is also no stranger to revealing roles: He said he had felt pressured into appearing naked in previous film and theater projects to add what he described as an “edgy” element to a production. He felt ambivalent about those experiences, he said. “The problem wasn’t the sex scene; it was that these movies were pretentious and flat, and you can’t turn it into something real just by taking off your underwear.”
Perhaps the most talked about sex scene in “Passages” occurs when Martin, Whishaw’s character, and Tomas end up in bed together after a series of betrayals. Rogowski said that the sequence was notable beyond its graphic nature, for its emotional depiction of two long-term partners negotiating power and pain through sex.
“It’s a couple having sex, it’s someone in a position of a victim taking over,” Rogowski said. “I think if someone only sees the film’s sex scenes as just explicit scenes of intercourse, then they should just watch another movie.”
In recent years, Whishaw said, the more widespread use of intimacy coordinators — experts who help performers negotiate their potential discomfort during sex scenes — has created a healthier atmosphere for actors, including himself. Before “this development, the actors were sort of left to do it for themselves, because the director was embarrassed, or didn’t know how to talk about it.”
For “Passages,” he added, the cast opted not to use such a coach. “I think it’s OK if the group of people filming a scene are cool with doing it among themselves,” he said. “It’s about respect and trust and sharing creative goals.”
The film is also notable for the unremarkable way it treats Tomas’s apparent bisexuality as he negotiates relationships with Agathe and Martin. That approach, Exarchopoulos said, played a large part in attracting her to the part. “It’s very normal in my own life and circles,” she said, for people to have relationships with either sex. Rogowski added that such love affairs were also commonplace in Berlin, where he lives. “I know it’s a cliché about Berlin, but some clichés are true,” he said.
Rogowski’s character, a tyrannical film director prone to on-set outbursts who frequently manipulates others to suit his own needs, reminded Exarchopoulos of colleagues she had encountered on movie sets, she said. “During the shoot, people in the production can sometimes be childish and have an ego, because they have power,” she said. “I have a lot of empathy for them.”
At first, Rogowski said, he struggled to identify with Tomas. “When I read the script, I thought, ‘This is a tough one, how am I going to justify his behavior?’” he said, adding that he eventually found the character’s lack of conventional morality to be liberating.
“A moral code is a kind of costume, and it’s interesting to change this costume,” Rogowski said. “For me personally, morality is a shady friend. It is related to religion and power structures, and it is, in many ways, a way of avoiding having your own opinion and exploring life.”
Rogowski said he believed that the notion of labeling film directors or actors as egocentric, or narcissists, is often a way of dismissing the value of their work. “Most of us have lost our relationships with ourselves, and don’t have enough time to be inspired by ourselves,” he said. “Most of us should be a bit more narcissistic.”
He added that Tomas’s headstrong nature is reflected in his character’s gender-forward fashion choices, which include some of the more memorable looks in recent art house cinema. Rogowski said was pleasantly surprised by his high-fashion outfits — which include a see-through sweater, a snakeskin jacket and a sheer crop-top — chosen by the film’s costume designer, Khadija Zeggaï. “I still have some of those items in my wardrobe,” he said.
The crop-top makes a particularly memorable appearance in a tense scene midway through the film, when Agathe invites her button-down, middle-class parents to meet her new boyfriend — a meal that grows increasingly disastrous by each passing minute. “It’s a nightmare,” Rogowski said. “I would have put on the most heteronormative T-shirt I could have found, just to make sure they are happy.”
Whishaw chimed in: “But what a wonderful thing that he does that.” Even though “there is a lot of pain in the film, there is joy underneath,” he said. “Everything is mixed up in this intricate way, and I think that’s what gives the film its soul.”