Keep The Lights On (2012)

Starring: Thure Lindhardt, Zachary Booth, Julianne Nicholson, Souleymane Sy Savane, Paprika Steen, David Anzuelo, Miguel del Toro, Sebastian La Cause, Christopher Lenk.

Director: Ira Sachs
Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 102 Minutes
Release Date: September 7, 2012
Home Video Release Date: TBD
North American Box Office: $177 Thousand

Alarum Pictures, Parts and Labor, Tiny Dancer Films, and Music Box Films.

Written by: Ira Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias.
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(out of 5 stars)

A deeply personal story for director Ira Sachs, Keep The Lights On is a frank and unflinching look at Sachs’ real-life near-decade long relationship with a man, who spiraled in and out of serious drug addiction.  No longer together, Sachs’ former partner, noted book publicist Bill Clegg, documented the relationship in his own memoirs and Sachs has now offered his cinematic sharing of their time together.

Danish actor Thure Lindhardt portrays Erik, a documentary filmmaker with a focus on LGBT-themed films.  About 30, Erik is still borrowing money from his father to keep his dream afloat, shunning his sister’s mentioning of an opportunity with PBS.  Lonely and alone, Erik calls up phone sex lines for encounters which develop into something of a verbal or physical nature and one such tryst results in his meeting Paul (Zachary Booth).  After sleeping together, Erik talks with Paul and Paul abruptly tells Erik that he has a girlfriend and there can be no follow up.  Sharing something more than just a typical one-night stand, Erik and Paul are drawn to one another and begin seeing each other more and more.  A relationship begins and Erik thinks he may have found someone he is compatible with.

With support from his best friend Claire (Julianne Nicholson), Erik endeavors for something more serious with Paul, initially ignoring and then begrudgingly accepting of Paul’s escalating addiction to crack cocaine, hard alcohol, and unrestrained behavior.  Paul, an attorney, works long hours which Erik accepts as a buy-in and concession for Paul’s behavior, but in an effort to appease and try to sustain the love and emotional connection to his boyfriend, Erik shares in some of Paul’s drugs and essentially becomes an enabler to the self-destruction transpiring around him.  With Paul going on benders, disappearing for days and weeks at a time, their relationship crumbles and is then rebuilt, only weaker than before.  Time and time again, the walls break down and eventually the couple split.  But then, some time later, Paul returns, clean and sober, and Erik is drawn back to him all over again.

Keep The Lights On is obviously not a film that is going to give you much in the way of calm and comfort, with much of Ira Sachs’ film graphic and unflinching from the sexual content to the drug addiction.  Seasoned, if certainly not well known actors, Lindhardt and Booth develop great chemistry together and both give raw and rough performances which enhance the intensity, bleak circumstances and intermittent despair which defines their time together.

Early on, knowing this is based on a real-life relationship, you begin to realize how deeply personal a film this had to be for Sachs to make.  Drafting the screenplay with veteran screenwriter Mauricio Zacharias, Sachs uses fresh and honest dialogue and confines much of the scenes in confined spaces, aiding in the suffocating feeling that undoubtedly was amplified as Sachs saw his partner spiral further and further downward with his addictions.

By its very design, Keep The Lights On is not a film many people will seek out.  The frank and graphic nature of the material here, coupled with the low-budget independent look and feel of the film, would simply strike most folks as to cheap or tawdry to consider.  For those interested in more adventurous and challenging cinema, and certainly curious in the new wave of LGBT-oriented cinema, Keep The Light On will strike a chord, with the potential to reach beyond its target audience.

Watching Keep The Lights On, I could not stop my mind from thinking of the expertly acted and insightful Weekend, a film many cited as one of 2011’s best films.  Weekend told, on an even smaller scale, a two-person love story based around an intended one-night stand in a frank and uncompromising way.   Weekend focuses on a story of two men who meet, immediately fall in love, and spend the entire weekend falling faster and faster for one another, talking and exploring one another mentally and physically, consuming each other as they become more and more at ease with one another.  Keep The Lights On stretches out a similar theme, just over the course of nearly ten years.  And although Weekend is a far superior film to Keep The Lights On, both films speak to how love can arise when you least expect it and considers how much we are willing to sacrifice, and to what level of intimacy we can give in to, when faced with the possibility that we may have just found “the one.”

Where Weekend ends with bittersweet optimism, Keep The Lights On ends in a more distancing and inquisitive manner.  Here, Sachs wonders if the sacrifice of reaching the bottom with the person you love, only to have them resurface independent and strong and seemingly healthy reaps any rewards for the person who suffered with them.  If one person is healed and fine, what about the scars and damages still present on the other party?  Can that person put everything in the past and embrace the new person seemingly reborn before them?  Is that fair?  Keep The Lights On is a film searching for those answers and I am not sure Ira Sachs has determined those answers for himself just quite yet.

SHOULD I SEE IT?
YES
  • Fans of the recent new wave of LGBT-dramas will find Keep The Lights On an inquisitive character study.
  • The acting is necessarily a bit rough around the edges and the film works in a more realistic way because of it.  With that said, Thure Lindhardt is especially good throughout.
  • Ira Sachs leaves no emotion unspoken in this revealing and heartfelt dramatic recounting of an affecting 10-year relationship.
NO
  • Limited in its audience reach.  The film is so dramatic and intense that those who may be curious to watch out may not be ready for how frank and unflinching a film this is.
  • I cannot imagine this being a date night selection.  For discerning independent-minded and LGBT-oriented audiences only.
  • The film contains an alarming reticence in showing that gay men have no qualms about crack cocaine and heavy drug use.  Some in the gay community have cited this as a disarmingly problematic element to the film’s subject matter.  I wonder if it distracts somewhat from the overall impact the film might indeed have to open-minded viewers.