Keep The Lights On
Ira Sach’s latest film "Keep the Lights On" is sort of a "Blue Valentine" for the gay crowd; a study of a 10 year relationship and the good and bad choices made by both parties as it heads toward its inevitable end. Based on his own relationship gone wrong, Sachs has crafted an intimate film that expertly details the minutiae of a relationship - from the loving glances and realistic lovemaking, to the much larger issues of drug addiction and its effect on not only the relationship, but also the people outside of it.
The film stars Thure Lindhardt as Erik, a Danish documentary filmmaker working on a film about an underground filmmaker. Seeking some sort of connection with another man, Erik spends his nights on phone sex chat lines (this is 1998) and winds up hooking up with Paul (Zachary Booth) who ends their first meeting by telling him he has a girlfriend. Despite this pronouncement, Paul and Eric continue to see each other and soon enough they are in a relationship. Not too far into it, however, Paul’s addiction to drugs surfaces, and while Erik passively allows it, it starts to take its toll. Over the course of ten years, the two go through an intervention, relapses, break-ups, and make-ups, along with some disturbing situations that prove that Erik is not capable of letting go.
Beautifully filmed and poetically paced, there are two problems with "Keep the Lights On" that kept me from becoming invested emotionally in the story. One is the fact that Paul’s addictions are never explained. While we can assume they might come from his inability to accept his homosexuality (he was just involved with a woman before Erik), this is never explored. When Erik asks him to explain where he’s been after a three-day disappearance, Paul never wants to discuss it, so we are left in the dark. Perhaps that’s the point, but for an audience, it left me not really sure how to care.
The biggest problem for me was the casting of Lindhardt who is so cold and vacant - creepily so - that I found him off-putting. He always seemed on the verge of grabbing some sort of piano wire or kitchen knife and slaughtering everyone in the room. That was how his unblinking (literally) intensity came across. Because of this, I didn’t care about their relationship as I should have, because I didn’t understand Paul’s attraction to him. What I was left with was a well-filmed story with good dialogue that kept me at a distance.
If I were picky I would also point out the anachronisms such as a flat-screen wall-mounted TV in a hotel room in 2004 and in 2009, a GAP ad on a slow-moving taxi promoting their "Mad Men" line which came out last year. But those are little quibbles.
Sachs is clearly a talented filmmaker who will undoubtedly keep growing and getting better as he continues to explore the intricacies of human relationships. Despite the film’s flaws, I’m intrigued to see more.