It seems odd to call a detailed portrait of toxic romance lovely, but Keep the Lights On truly is. Anchored by a ravishingly detailed performance from Thure Lindhardt, director Ira Sachs' quietly ambitious tale tracks lovers Erik (Lindhardt) and Paul (Zachary Booth) across more than a decade in New York's artistic demimonde, where Erik is a documentary filmmaker and Paul works in publishing. These two very different men meet, mate and fall in and out of each others arms, until Paul's increasing addiction to crack cocaine provides a climactic test of their love. A long life on the festival circuit is a certainty, and awards action could even break this one out into more general circulation, though whether anything beyond a small, elite audience is available to a film of such subtle human pleasures is (unfortunately) always a question.
Sachs is perhaps best known for Forty Shades of Blue, a joyless Desire Under the Elms knock-off that wowed them at Sundance back in 2005. The growth from that grim wallow to this layered human drama is measurable. There is something bracingly assured and even sensible about Sachs' calm, craftsman-like approach to what in other hands might have been a melodrama. The script, co-written by Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias, doesn't judge its characters; it observes them with compassion (a far harder thing to do). Sachs direction is both superlative and a pitch-perfect embodiment of Erik's open but self-aware approach to life: a concentration on performance lends depth, dignity and nuance to even the smallest role and Sach's unshowy but bravura camerawork is built on careful screen compositions that give the actors room to breathe.
Lindhardt is an absolutely radiant leading man—tough, tender, guarded where appropriate, and entirely believable as someone who freely chooses to be a fool for love. Booth is equally layered as the more closeted Paul. We see why Erik is drawn to this self-destructive partner, sharing in his hopes for romantic stability, and his frustrations when Paul, like so many addicts, proves to be a closed loop, someone whose priorities can never really exist outside the self.
A brief discussion of gay porno folk artist Avery Willard (the poor man's Kenneth Anger) and one of the best song-based music scores in recent memory are added bonuses for this fine film, which will unfortunately face an uphill battle in today's formulaic exhibition climate thanks to the very things that make it special.
Here's hoping critics and festival programmers can find a way to help Sachs keep the lights on.
Contact: Marie Therese Guirgis
Cast: Thure Lindhardt, Zachary Booth, Julianne Nicholson
Director: Ira Sachs
Screenwriters: Ira Sachs, Mauricio Zacharias
Producers: Marie Therese Guirgis, Lucas Joaquin, Ira Sachs
Genre: Gay relationship drama
Running time: 101 min.
Rating: Unrated, but with heavy and at times graphic sexual content