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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Ryan Gilbey

‘Ben has a great pelvis and it’s wonderful to show it’: Ira Sachs, Franz Rogowski and Ben Whishaw on their erotic new film

The cast and director of Passages (from left) … Franz Rogowski, Adèle Exarchopoulos, Ira Sachs and Ben Whishaw.
The cast and director of Passages (from left) … Franz Rogowski, Adèle Exarchopoulos, Ira Sachs and Ben Whishaw. Photograph: Emily Assiran/Getty for Stacy’s Pita Chips

‘These interviews are full of shit,” says Franz Rogowksi, eyeballing the webcam in his Berlin apartment, a slash of Sunday morning sunshine streaking the wall behind him. This would be an awkward moment were the vulpine 37-year-old actor not wearing a lopsided smile, his voice free of rancour or complaint. What he is trying to get across is that there are certain conventions when promoting a movie. “People say: ‘Oh, this is so amazing, the project was so amazing.’ You and I would be having this exact same conversation even if this movie was shit. But I truly love what we’ve done.”

The movie in question is Passages, a caustic, concentrated, jaggedly funny and aggressively erotic portrait of a relationship in freefall. Rogowski plays Tomas, a film-maker living in chic luxury in Paris with his husband, Martin (Ben Whishaw). After wrapping his new film, also called Passages, Tomas goes home with a schoolteacher called Agathe (Adèle Exarchopoulos), whom he meets in a club. Martin is bruised by this dalliance, not least when Tomas starts crowing about how blissful it was, but he takes it wearily in his stride. “You’re always like this when you finish a film,” he says. “You just forget.” This, however, is no fling.

From the opening scene, in which Tomas’s direction of his actors drifts into bullying, we are in the company of a character who is as transfixing and unfiltered as he is capricious. “The character appeared very rude to me at first and hard to justify,” says Rogowski. “On the other hand, it’s interesting to play someone who doesn’t follow codes of good behaviour or make it easy for you to like him. He’s just: ‘I’m searching, I’m in pain, I’m in love.’ He’s not a very conceptual guy.”

Adèle Exarchopoulos as Agathe
Adèle Exarchopoulos as Agathe. Photograph: Courtesy of SBS Productions

Ira Sachs, the 57-year-old director and co-writer of Passages, has a strong record in knotty, queer dramas, such as Keep the Lights On, his autobiographical tale of a relationship blighted by an ex-partner’s drug addiction. He wrote the part of Tomas for Rogowski after seeing Michael Haneke’s Happy End, in which the actor performs an acrobatic rendition of Sia’s Chandelier that tips from karaoke into kamikaze. “I’ve shown that scene to hundreds of people,” the director says when we meet in London. “Franz is such a creature of cinema. He ignites the relationship between the body and the screen. He’s forceful, compelling, mysterious, magnetic. He’s like this empathic animal. And he’s really hot.”

I speak to Whishaw, 42, the night before the Sag-Aftra strike and he uses similar imagery to describe his co-star. “Franz has got an animal-ness and an otherworldliness about him,” he says via video call, his bushy hair and chunky Harry-Palmer-esque specs filling the screen. “His perspective is never quite what you think and never like anyone else’s. That’s part of what Tomas and Martin have: it’s stimulating and intense, in good ways and bad.” Ask Rogowski about his feelings for Whishaw and the praise comes tumbling out. “I adore him. I love him. I love his micro-gestures, his incredible capacity to say 10 things in a split of a second. Ben is so well-prepared, but then he manages to kind of forget his lines and find them again in the very moment he needs to say them.”

Although Martin is the wounded party, at least until Agathe gets caught in the couple’s crossfire, it doesn’t do to underestimate Whishaw; he may be the voice of Paddington, but he is no teddy bear. “Ben is seemingly more recessive than Franz,” says Sachs. “I’ve discovered, though, that he’s a bit of a knife. He has a sharpness that is very active. It has a precision and it can be violent. There are moments in the film where he causes pain with great force.”

The director introduced Whishaw and Rogowski in a bar in Paris, then immediately made himself scarce. “I try not to get between the actors. I want them to form something that I am as much a witness to as anyone.” Costume fittings are a shortcut to intimacy, especially for a film that features such expressive, exuberant outfits: crop-tops, mesh and leopard-print for Rogowski and a wispy, red silk dressing gown for Whishaw that heightens his femininity and lends him an imperious decadence.

“I don’t rehearse, but I do get the actors to spend a lot of time trying things on,” says Sachs. “Franz said to me: ‘I’ve never had a director be more interested in clothes than you.’ I felt shame and pride at the same time. I felt like it was drawing attention to my homosexuality in a way that made me wonder: ‘Is that a good thing? Do I feel good about that?’ But it’s part of a strategy of making people feel comfortable.”

Adèle Exarchopoulos and Franz Rogowski
Exarchopoulos as Agathe and Rogowski as Tomas. Photograph: Courtesy of SBS Productions

It did the trick. “Ira was a true companion,” says Rogowski. What does that entail? “It means being willing to have a level of confrontation or friction that for a European might be normal, but to an American can seem offensive. It took us only a couple of minutes to realise it’s fun to have a little argument: it can be a great pleasure to disagree instead of constantly empowering or blaming one another.”

Sachs concurs. “Franz and I had a romantic relationship, in some ways, without it being sexual. Or rather, not particularly sexual. We trusted each other enough to disagree in a way that was stimulating. Usually, when I’m disagreeing with an actor, I’m thinking: ‘How can I get what I want?’ Forcing them is usually all you can do, because they’re never going to understand. Whereas, with Franz, I felt that, if we kept talking, we’d understand each other. And that’s very intimate.”

I ask Whishaw about Sachs and Rogowski locking horns. “They enjoy that,” he says. And him? “Less so.” He laughs nervously, like a child remembering a parental set-to. “I was raised in such a way that it makes me extremely anxious. But I’m getting better at going: ‘Oh, this is not the end of the world. It’s an argument that we can get through.’ Ira and Franz get energy from it. Something creative emerges.” What does he do while the sparks fly? “I just listen.”

Sparks of a different kind are generated by the sex scenes, which have earned Passages an 18 certificate in the UK and an NC-17, seen as the commercial kiss of death, in the US. (The film is instead being released unrated in North America.) One unbroken two-minute shot shows Martin with his back to camera as he makes love to Tomas, who then reaches around to his husband’s behind and lets his fingers do the talking.

“They are trying to fuck off their problems,” says Rogowski. “Often in your life, you’ll have sex for different reasons and sometimes you’re not even aware why. But it helps.” The moment has a value for him that transcends narrative. “It’s a shot that shows the landscape of Ben’s beautiful spine. And, you know, he’s a great fucker. He has a great pelvis and it’s wonderful to show it. I find it disappointing how much we surrender to psychology. It sounds esoteric, but it’s limiting to always see people as hungry, tired, happy, sad. It’s, like, 10 emotions and that’s it. But there’s a whole other breadth to the world we live in.”

Sachs calls the scene “really impressive as a moment of acting. Not to say there aren’t physical things going on between Franz and Ben that are real. I mean, they’re not robots. They’re responding to each other’s bodies. Something is happening that’s erotic – positive or negative.”

For all the vividness of these emotions, I confess to Sachs that I prayed none of the characters would end up together in any permutation. He smiles knowingly. “I don’t think this is necessarily good for marketing, but I was always aware this was not a love story,” he says. “It’s like how some viewers – usually younger people who haven’t had much life experience – watch Keep the Lights On and feel sad that those two men don’t stay together. And I’m, like: ‘My whole experience of that relationship is: why didn’t I get out of it in the first week?’ The fact I stayed for 10 years is a tragedy.” If Passages isn’t a love story, what is it? “To me, it’s about a man who begins in a position of power and authority and ends up …”

Franz Rogowski and Ben Whishaw as Tomas and Martin
Rogowski and Whishaw as Martin. Photograph: Courtesy of SBS Productions

No spoilers. But many of Sachs’s films articulate the damage wrought on the world by obliviously powerful white men. From his fraught 1996 debut The Delta, about an upper-middle-class Memphis native (not unlike Sachs himself) who becomes involved with a poor Vietnamese hustler, to his 2016 coming-of-age drama Little Men, in which the friendship between two adolescent boys is jeopardised by their parents’ real-estate dispute, the director is sensitised to every power imbalance. Whishaw sees Passages as a continuation of that theme. “Tomas and Martin are capable of being cruel and using their power to get what they want,” he says.

For all her resilience, the film’s real victim is Agathe. The scene in which she spends the night with the couple at their second home is, Sachs insists, “like something from a horror movie. You’re like: ‘Get out of the house!’ That dynamic is about class and gender and what it is to be a woman. The potential to be treated violently for women is one of the master narratives of our culture and our lives, right? The possibility for abuse seems everywhere.”

Rogowski muses on his resemblance to the entitled, swaggering Tomas. “One wonders how much he is me, or how much I’m like him. It’s left me asking: how capable am I of loving? How pure is my empathy?”

It is Sachs who comes closest to confessing that Tomas is at least partly a self-portrait. He describes to me a recent situation where he and a group of friends were having drinks after a Q&A session after a screening of Passages. Then he noticed a stranger had joined their table. “I told this person: ‘Please leave.’ There was this very strange moment. I was appalled at myself, but also I was creating boundaries.” Very Tomas. Then again, who wants an interloper tagging along? “Well, that’s what I thought. But as this person was leaving, it turned out someone in the group did know them. I thought they were just a fan joining us.” Ah. That is a bit more awkward.

“It’s an example of me being comfortable with power and using it. Someone once described me as a wolf in sheep’s clothing, which is true, but I can also be the reverse: a sheep in wolf’s clothing. Scared, exposed, embarrassed about the authority I have.” No wonder Sachs makes the films he does. He is living them.

• Passages is in cinemas from 1 September

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