“Keep the Lights On” looks like what it is: An incredibly personal work for writer-director Ira Sachs. The story of Danish documentarian Erik (Thure Lindhardt) living in New York and enduring a tumultuous relationship with the drug-addicted Paul (Zachary Booth) spans a decade with an unhurried pace attuned to the on-again, off-again pattern that the men endure. Sachs’ quiet, observational style conveys the rich texture of the characters’ ever-changing behavior. It’s deeply affecting, even when nothing much happens.
Closer in tone to Sachs’ “Forty Shades of Blue” than his large-scale outing “Married Life,” the new work mainly centers on Erik’s continuing inability to stabilize his existence. Slaving away on an Avery Willard documentary, he hardly has time for a personal life and spends his free time calling anonymous phone sex ads. Lacking a strategy for stabilizing himself, Erik looks perpetually sad. “In your twenties, it’s charming to be up and coming,” his sister advises him. “In your thirties, it’s pathetic.”
Perhaps to remind himself that other people have it worse, Erik quickly falls for Paul, a closeted lawyer whom he sleeps with after responding to his ad. Initially, they engage in a clandestine affair behind the back of Paul’s girlfriend, but eventually the facade fades away and the duo appear to settle into a more conventional life together. Paul’s drug use, however, sticks around and becomes the focus of the story. The two actors engage in furious debate and quiet postcoital discussions with an impressively low-key delivery that complements Sachs’ naturalistic framing of their world. The immersive nature of “Turn Off the Lights” makes it palpably heartfelt, but not overly sentimental.
However, while the up-and-down trajectory of their relationship rings true, it can also grow repetitive. “Keep the Lights On” manages to convey the reality of Erik’s situation, but never manages to build on it. “You need to change this,” Erik tells Paul of his addiction. But change isn’t something that this movie understands as much as the lyrical rhythms of everyday life. Sachs litters his narrative with pensive long takes of Erik wandering the streets of New York, which work like peaceful interludes in his otherwise hectic routine.
Sachs’ screenplay does a terrific job capturing the drama shared by urban sophisticates with an understated approach that foregrounds Erik’s ongoing confusion. Cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis (“Dogtooth”) renders the movie with a warm palette that’s particularly evocative during the bedroom scenes, when deep yellows appear to manifest the characters’ state of mind. Combining that visual polish with credible pillow talk, “Keep the Lights On” becomes a movie about the intersection of sexuality and emotion.
On a most basic level, the movie begs comparison to last year’s breakout queer drama, “Weekend.” Certainly “Keep the Lights On” maintains a similarly mournful quality, but it whereas “Weekend” portrayed two men falling in love in spite of their divergent philosophies, Sachs emphasizes his characters’ struggle to maintain a commitment that may have run it course. Taking the emphasis off individual perspectives, Sachs skillfully explores dangerous extremes–not only drug addiction, but the slipperiness of attraction, both to other people and oneself.
Criticwire grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Well-received in the U.S. competition at Sundance, “Keep the Lights On” lacks the kind of star power or immediate hook that might propel it to a large scale release, but a midsize distributor like IFC or Kino Lorber could likely tap into its niche appeal.