When one thinks of love story cinema, one can easily conjure Adèle Exarchopoulos. The 29-year-old French actor seems to fit into these roles as effortlessly as breathing. From her Palme d’Or winning feature film Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013), to her most recent effort, Passages (2023), it is clear that this theory of Exarchopoulos as a love story actor par excellence continues to be true.
To have been a fly on the wall during the filming of Passages (directed by Ira Sachs) could certainly be categorized as a great artistic wish—that is, to witness a classic of human bondage being caught on film. Never mind the primal nature of the sex scenes in Passages (which earned the film a contentious NC-17 rating, one that Sachs labeled an inappropriate level of censorship), but what about those scenes of human purity? The family dinner, the drink at the bar, the dressing up for a night out, all of it so effortlessly performed that it hardly feels like performance...again, making it feel like something one can only say is akin to breathing.
Passages is a heavy film. It is anchored by Exarchopoulos as the female lead, playing out a character named Agathe, a young schoolteacher. The story orbits around a gay male couple’s marriage, thrown into crisis when Tomas (Franz Rogowski) has an incendiary affair with Exarchopoulos. It is one of those stories that you almost have to witness through fingers in front of your eyes. It plays out so voyeuristically on screen, the whole atmosphere directed with utter deftness by Sachs, whose previous features include Forty Shades of Blue (2005), and Keep the Lights On (2012).
Through all of the desirous fire in Passages, it feels like the subtle moments are the scenes that help the film maintain artistic transcendence because the passion only feels justified by the softness that surrounds it. With the trio of main actors moving and feeding so well off of each other’s energy, we get layer after layer of the human equation. From the quiet sociopathy of Franz Rogowski, or his boyfriend Martin’s (Ben Whishaw) innocence being ripped apart like threads off a sweater, to Exarchopoulos’ character caught in between; her naivete, her gentle face, her feminine strength and resolve amidst romantic confusion.
It is a delight to speak to Exarchopoulos about these subjects of love and lust, about the things that are perennial in relationships and those that are ephemeral. To make contact with an artist who brings the most eternal of human qualities to life on screen in such an honest way is a gift.
Considering what I perceive as strong themes of love and lust in Passages, what are your thoughts on the two? And how might you differentiate, or be able to tell when entering a romantic relationship if it is grounded in love or lust?
I think it’s interesting because romance is in our nature—no need to put words on or analyze sentiments. I also think that desire and love are never too far from each other, and these feelings are put to a test when one or the other is fading or less intense. This is such a vast, pertinent and inexhaustible theme, it’s universal. We’re all inhabited by our desires and are not much without love.
How important is the director, in the case of Passages, Ira Sachs, in helping you and the other actors cultivate trust between each other?
Ira sort of imposes a natural trust from the get-go. We talked a lot about various subjects—his simplicity and his humanity show through his movies. He’s non-judgmental, benevolent, complex, and soft. He was there for the fittings, and he introduced me to Ben and Franz very quickly. Humanly speaking, I knew this adventure was going to be sweet from the beginning and it continues to be as sweet today.
Considering you are a mother, and in Passages your character gets pregnant, I’m curious how children and becoming a parent have maybe changed your perception of how you approach relationships, romantic or not so.
Becoming a mother at a younger age changed my whole world. Not me specifically, but mainly the way I perceived and went through life. I lost my carefree [self], and at the same time, I reconnected with an immense curiosity I had lost. An innocent eye on the world thanks to my son’s innocence. Love and friendship are things I consider so essential, I naturally pass them on to my kid. I am uncertain about many things in my life, but not my friends. They are my pillars [through] hours of laughter and self-mockery.
I feel there is a very strong through line in your work of playing characters and telling stories about intimacy, from Blue is the Warmest Colour to Passages. Is the depth of the relationships between characters something you consider consciously when choosing a role?
I look out for the depth of the scenario itself. When I am reading one, it’s as if I’m reading a story to my son (I obviously don’t do voices alone in my bed). I read the story, I let it go through me and when I’m done, I take stock of what it did to me. Sometimes it’s clumsy, but the character touches me profoundly. Sometimes it’s perfect, but unfortunately, I don’t connect with it. I don’t look for anything in particular other than getting the perspective of whoever wrote it on a subject, a moment, a meet-up and then it starts to make sense to me and the adventure becomes interactive. I need depth, but I do also need it to stay fun!
How do you feel about ‘potential’ in relationships? Potential seems to get us into relationships, but can it sustain them?
I think today, we’re missing nuances, even in our stories. I find that we don’t take the time anymore, we’re quick to choose and even quicker to give up. It might be great in a lot of situations, but I don’t know that “potential” is something you can cultivate. I believe the essence is sharing with the person what they make you feel, and more importantly what you’re ready to accept.
Sometimes people truly love each other, but they don’t make each other happy, it’s such an intimate and complex subject for every person! I don’t know how you define “potential,” but for me, it’s the illusion or the projection of a relationship. So it dies pretty quickly, because you’re waiting for something so precise it becomes a fantasy...in the long term, I don’t think fantasies are meant to last.
Do you believe in love at first sight?
I don’t know, but I’d like to believe in it.
Photographed by Emmanuel Giraud
Styled by Marie Cheiakh
Written by Augustus Britton
Hair: Mathieu Laudrel
Nails: Rachel Levy
Producer: Paul Gazai
Production Manager: Jeanne Gay
Photo Assistant: Thomas Clodine Florent