The Oscars are still five months away, but there’s one winner prediction that you can take to the bank. The category of Best Costume Design will be won by a period drama or a fantasy film. In the past 45 years, only one contemporary-set movie (1994’s “The Adventures of Pricilla, Queen of the Desert”) has scored the costume prize, with only about one contemporary nominee per decade.
While dressing up monarchs and showgirls and superheroes is a craft that deserves praise, the period/fantasy monopoly also highlights work outside of that mold. And there’s no better recent example of imagination in modern dress than “Passages,” the great drama from director Ira Sachs (“Love Is Strange”), elevated with idiosyncratic, seductive costumes design by Khadija Zeggaï.
Set among the bourgeoisie in modern day Paris, “Passages” focuses on German filmmaker Tomas (Franz Rogowski), who is married to artist Martin (Ben Whishaw) but falls in love with schoolteacher Agathe (Adele Excharpoulous).
The film, which grabbed attention due to the MPAA’s preposterous NC-17 rating decision, opened in theaters in August and is now available to stream on MUBI or to rent via digital outlets.
The outfits in “Passages” create a whole visual language, especially for Tomas. As worn by the lead character, a tight crop top and leopard pants can be a trigger for sexual seduction in one scene and a weapon for provocation in another.
“We realized that we weren’t really making a realistic film,” Sachs said during a recent BAFTA interview. “We were making an unreal film, in which the costumes elevate everything to a point of the dramatic and the impactful and the emotional. So we took risks with the costumes.”
He added, “(Khadija Zeggaïe) understands how costumes become a part of the storytelling in a really significant way.”
Zeggaï credits include Nadav Lapid’s “Synonyms,” Catherine Breillat’s upcoming “Last Summer,” and she designed the wardrobe for Isabelle Huppert in Sachs’ previous film “Frankie.”
She talked to TheWrap about a few of the most striking and subtle outfits, among the many, that we encounter in “Passages.”
Tomas’s leopard pants and sheer dragon-print crop top are perhaps the film’s most memorable look, which recurs with different intentions in separate scenes.
Zeggaï wanted to suggest a beastly quality within Tomas, while also accentuating the frame of Rogowski, a trained dancer.
“Ira’s freedom and Franz’s personality really helped me to make the right choices,” she said. “Tomas, for this scene, is wearing clothes cut for the female body. I didn’t alter the clothing. Everything was made for his dancing body.”
In a scene shortly after they have moved in together, Tomas is wearing a green sweater and Agathe a floral blue dress.
“These two colors represent peace of mind for Agathe and Tomas,” said Zeggaï. “We worked a lot with Ira and Franz on the type of German director who likes to dress up. The mesh quality of the sweater is a signature of Tomas’s look. “But Franz is someone who needs time to get to grips with the silhouette, so we talked a lot.”
For Agathe, “Ira’s references for the character were of a popular young French woman. Ira was always quoting the actresses Sandrine Bonnaire and Brigitte Bardot. Adèle and I looked for her character through discussions and examples.”
During a scene when Tomas is calling to troll Martin, he is wearing a snakeskin jacket, which in this shot camouflages him into the cityscape.
“It was a jacket I had found in a vintage shop,” Zeggaï said. She liked how it also accentuated his animal nature. “The idea that Tomas could be a wild beast helped me to find this python jacket, his bearskin jacket, and much of his clothes.”
“Red is the color Ira wanted for Agathe,” said Zeggaï. Earlier in the film she’s outfitted in red leather jacket as a defensive shell during a meeting with Tomas. But late in the drama, we see her in this scarlet turtleneck near a turning point at the end of the film, during two decision point scenes – first with Martin and then with Tomas.
“Red evokes strength,” said Zeggaï. “And at this point in the film, Agathe has decided she is free.”
In lieu of cross-cutting, Sachs much prefers a “two shot” like this one, which illustrates the contrast between the characters.
“It was Ira’s idea,” Zeggaï said of the color scheme. Whishaw’s Martin is dressed predominantly in modest gray, with an occasional blue shirt. “But Ira wanted Ben to be dressed in white at the end of the film. Ben, Ira and I talked a lot and did a few fittings.”