Keep the Lights On: Sundance Film Review

Keep the Lights On

U.S. Dramatic Competition

Despite the distancing nature of its lead performance, Ira Sachs’ film follows recent dramas "Weekend" and "Pariah" as another distinctively textured reflection on modern gay experience. 

Drawing on painful personal experience, director Ira Sachs charts the highs and lows of a decade-long love story between two gay men torn by addiction.

PARK CITY – Breaking new ground in contemporary American gay cinema, Ira Sachs’ deeply personal drama Keep the Lights On examines a volatile 10-year relationship between two divergently addictive personalities, observed in a style that is loose and impressionistic while at the same time microscopic in its intimate detail. A stiff central performance diminishes its emotional impact, but the visually alluring film’s sensuality and tenderness give it a lingering spell.

During the explosion of New Queer Cinema in the early 1990s, a talented crop of directors emerged, including Todd Haynes, Tom Kalin, Gregg Araki and Rose Troche, bringing boldly stylized approaches to telling gay and lesbian stories. But as that movement dispersed, gay-themed film largely has either inched toward the mainstream or retreated further into the margins. Like recent indie discoveries Weekend and Pariah, Keep the Lights On operates in a kind of poetic realism that feels fresh and culturally specific. It also marks a return of sorts for Sachs to the hypnotic mood-piece quality of his first feature, The Delta.

Sachs’ fictionalized stand-in here is Erik (Thure Lindhardt), a Danish filmmaker living in New York, working on a documentary about Avery Willard, an elusive underground figure of the queer art world from the 1940s through the ‘70s. His sister (Paprika Steen) wants him to stop leaning on their father to bankroll esoteric projects and take a paying job at PBS. But Erik seems resistant to structure.

Still jaded after the end of a relationship, he satisfies his compulsive sexual appetite via casual hookups, the transactional nature of which is conveyed in a funny series of phone negotiations that opens the film. During one such encounter, he meets Paul (Zachary Booth), who informs him after sex, “I have a girlfriend, by the way,” warning him not to expect a follow-up.

But they continue seeing each other; a strong connection develops, and they move in together. A literary lawyer with a major publishing house, Paul has a crack habit that initially seems manageable. (It’s no secret that the character is based on Sachs’ former partner, Bill Clegg, a literary agent at William Morris Endeavor, who chronicled his odyssey in the memoir “Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man.”)

The warmth and physical heat between Erik and Paul at first seems enough to compensate for the friction caused by Erik’s sexual compulsions and Paul’s occasional disappearances on weekend drug binges, which he refuses to discuss upon returning. But eventually Erik and his friends stage an intervention. While Paul reacts with cold humiliation, he agrees to go to rehab; a period of precarious tranquility follows while he remains in recovery.

The inevitable relapse occurs while Erik is away at the Berlin Film Festival premiering his Willard doc, and Paul disappears on a three-week bender. When he resurfaces, Erik finds him holed up in an expensive hotel suite, burning through money on a regime of vodka, crack and hustlers. In the film’s most unflinching scene, Erik refuses to leave until Paul is ready to come home, staying in the room while his fried partner gets roughly serviced by an unfazed rent boy.

It’s in the slow unraveling of the relationship following their reconciliation that inexpressive Lindhardt’s limitations as an actor really begin to weigh on the drama’s effectiveness. Painful, protracted indecision is admittedly a tough limbo to portray. But as Erik agonizes over whether to make the necessary break or continue waiting anxiously for Paul’s next derailment, it’s hard to feel anything for him.

There’s too little sense of how Paul’s chronic dysfunction wounds his partner, and while Erik’s love for him is apparent, the character’s blank self-involvement keeps him remote. Booth’s depiction of sweet but selfish fragility -- Paul's imtimations of shame are countered by the unapologetic enslavement of addiction -- make it easier to empathize with the heedless train wreck than the person whose life he is ruining.

But even if it falls short on emotional heft, the film is not without poignancy, and its naked self-revelation is compelling. Co-screenwriters Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias demarcate the action by roughly three-year intervals. But there’s a beguiling quasi-randomness to the way they check in on the relationship during the course of a decade. It feels less like a concrete chapter in two lives than a dreamily attenuated reflection on the imperfections of love. This aspect is enhanced by liberal use of music by the eclectic composer, singer and cellist Arthur Russell, who died of AIDS-related causes in 1992.

An additional pleasure of Sachs’ film is its immersive portrait of contemporary New York life, thanks in large part to the gorgeous work of Greek cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis. Without over-aestheticizing the city and turning this into a swoony hipster postcard, the film captures its bars, restaurants, streets, apartment buildings and nightspots with a painterly eye and a seductive tonal range that relies extensively on natural light. And the unfettered ease of the filmmakers in capturing male bodies and physical intimacy shows a freedom that is still rare in American movies.

Also well-observed is the significance of tight networks of friends to the fabric of city life, most notably in the lovely performance of Julianne Nicholson as Erik’s producer and protective best buddy.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)

Production companies: Parts and Labor, Post FactoryNY Films, Tiny Dancer Films, Alarum Pictures, Film 50

Cast: Thure Lindhardt, Zachary Booth, Julianne Nicholson, Souléymane Sy Savané, Paprika Steen

Director: Ira Sachs

Screenwriters: Ira Sachs, Mauricio Zacharias

Producers: Lucas Joaquin, Marie Therese Guirgis

Executive producer: Jawal Nga

Director of photography: Thimios Bakatakis

Production designer: Amy Williams

Music: Arthur Russell

Costume designer: Elisabeth Vastola

Editor: Alfonso Gonçalves

Sales: Preferred Content/William Morris Endeavor/Films Boutique

No rating, 101 minutes