Keep The Lights On

Keep The Lights On

***1/2

Reviewed by: Owen Van Spall

Taking us from Manhattan in 1998 to the late 200s, jumping two or three year gaps at several points along the way, Ira Sach's Keep The Lights On is a gently paced but unsparing and unglamorous portrait of a gay relationship where love doesn't and perhaps never could conquer all.

When we first meet thirtysomething Erik, a Danish immigrant to New York City working on a seemingly never-finished documentary, he is lying on a bed dialling different gay dating phone numbers, until he finds a suitable blind date for sex. This is clearly a regular thing for him; the need for the rush without the attachment. But when Erik first meets the more reserved, more affluent New Yorker attorney Paul (who is actually in the closet at this point) on one of these random dates, the encounter leads to something more and the two are soon regularly seeing each other.

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Two years later, seemingly against both their expectations, the two men are sharing an apartment and their lives. But, as the narrative progresses, skipping over whole blocks of years, the secrets and insecurities both men harbour begin to more obviously unravel their relationship. The pair struggle to create a life together but are both prone to compulsions, promiscuity and addiction at different and sometimes the same time. Paul, in particular, descends over the years into a crack and booze habit that drives him to randomly disappear into the city, sometimes for days on end. Erik, on the other hand, still finds the pull of random sexual encounters hard to resist.

Right from the start, Keep The Lights On is intimate and explicit, apparently based partly on Sachs' own experiences. Those experiences aren't always pretty given both Erik and Paul descend at various times into their own compromised situations. At their best, the two are enjoying a passionate relationship based on a clear and deep mutual attraction, with both interestingly complimenting the other as Erik perhaps takes on the more needful and childish role in the partnership opposite the more uptight and mature Paul (in one scene Paul and Erik compare how they wear their collars, with Paul pointing out tellingly a established New Yorker like him habitually keeps his collar down).

But at their worst, Erik is forced to watch Paul have sex with a male prostitute in his previously secret crack den apartment after failing to convince him to return. The two try all the usual tactics: interventions, promises, pleading, hitting seemingly rock bottom again and again. But nothing seems to work.

This isn't a gay drama about coming out or facing up to homophobia, in fact quite the opposite - its a relationship-off-the-rails story avoiding any of the politics of the two decades, that most viewers gay or straight should be able to relate to in some way. The narrative time jumps and the lack of background context via dialogue or scenes with the characters might leave some viewers feeling that there could have been more meat to the proceedings and a deeper exploration of the pair's intertwining and diverging stories (what exactly does Paul do away from Erik? How and why did his drug use start? Does Erik take his random flirtations with artist Igor anywhere?).

The film could also arguably be interpreted as one-sided to Erik's point of view, and somewhat cold, with both characters, but more noticeably Paul, kept more distant than than might have been from the viewer. But then that puts more onus on the viewer to figure out the mysteries of how two people who have everything - - neither Erik nor Paul seem to have the familiar problems about having come out to their friends and family, or any money troubles for that matter - still can't make it work . Still, overall this is a bold telling of an age-old conundrum. As an added curiosity, the film also gives props to and features photographer and filmmaker Avery Willard and singer-composer Arthur Russell, who provides Erik’s musical leitmotiv in the score.

Reviewed on: 10 Feb 2012
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An autobiographically inspired story of a passionate long-term relationship between two men driven by addiction and secrets but bound by love and hopefulness.
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Director: Ira Sachs

Writer: Ira Sachs, Mauricio Zacharias

Starring: Thure Lindhardt, Zachary Booth, Julianne Nicholson, Souleymane Sy Savane, Paprika Steen

Year: 2012

Runtime: 101 minutes

Country: US


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