Passages director slams ‘depressing’ NC-17 rating for gay love story: ‘Cultural censorship’

Ben Whishaw as Martin (L) and Franz Rogowski as Tomas (R) in Passages.

Passages director Ira Sachs has spoken out against the Motion Picture Association’s NC-17 rating of his acclaimed queer romance.

One of the most acclaimed films to premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, upcoming queer drama Passages follows movie director Tomas (Franz Rogowski) and artist Martin (Ben Whishaw), a longtime married couple whose relationship unravels when Tomas begins an affair with teacher Agathe (Adèle Exarchapoulos).

NC-17 is the highest rating that can be awarded by the Motion Picture Association (MPA), and means that content is “patently too adult” for anyone below the age of 18 to view it. This can include explicit and gratuitous scenes of “violence, sex, aberrational behaviour or drug abuse”.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times on Wednesday (19 July), Sachs said that the NC-17 rating for his new film is a “dangerous” example of “cultural censorship”.

A still from Passages, directed by Ira Sachs.
A still from Passages, directed by Ira Sachs. (MUBI)

“We hunger for movies that are in any proximity to our own experience,” he told the publication, “and to find a movie like this, which is then shut out, is, to me, depressing and reactionary.

“It’s really about a form of cultural censorship that is quite dangerous, particularly in a culture which is already battling, in such extreme ways, the possibility of LGBT imagery to exist.”

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In their official guidance, the board emphasises the rating does not necessarily mean “obscene or pornographic” scenes and “should not be construed as a negative judgement”. It is, however, a rare rating, with less than 10 US films in the past decade receiving it, according to IMDb – including Netflix’ first ever NC-17 rated original film Blonde in 2022.

Sexual pleasure is a central theme of Passages, with a modern love triangle explored through a series of sexually explicit scenes including an uncut, two-minute long sex scene between Tomas and Martin in which Whishaw’s character is entirely nude.

Although Sachs’ previous LGBTQ+ film Love is Strange (2014) came out with a slightly lower R-rating, he has ruled out recutting Passages in the interests of receiving a more favourable certification.

“There’s no untangling the film from what it is,” said Sachs. “It is a film that is very open about the place of sexual experience in our lives. And to shift that now would be to create a very different movie.”

Sachs joked that the letter from MPA explaining their decision “looks like it was written by my great-aunt”, adding: “In this case, it was about ass and fingers and bodies in motion. And it’s very funny, because it’s written by someone who seems to be literally from a different era.”

“It’s so 1950s that this still exists,” he continued.

“We’re talking about a board that is not visible, that doesn’t make its rules known, that exists in silence,” Sachs continued. “We’re talking about a select group of people who have a certain bent, which seems anti-gay, anti-progress, anti-sex – a lot of things which I’m not.”

Despite the controversial decision, streaming platform and Passages distributor MUBI has stood by Sachs and will release the film unrated on their platform.

In a statement, MUBI said: “Passages is an honest and groundbreaking portrait of contemporary relationships, both queer and straight.

“Frank and thoughtful portrayals of sex are essential to cinematic storytelling and in service of representation more broadly. An NC-17 rating suggests the film’s depiction of sex is explicit or gratuitous, which it is not, and that mainstream audiences will be offended by this portrayal, which we believe is also false.”

But in a comment provided to the Los Angeles Times, MPA denied that “sexual orientation of a character” is considered during the ratings review process.

Passages previews in the UK from 23 August and opens in cinemas on 1 September 2023