By Michael Koresky
Keep the Lights On
Dir. Ira Sachs, U.S., Music Box Films
Since 1996, Ira Sachs has specialized in feature films about outsiders. His characters simply don’t fit in, whether they feel cast out within their own community, as was the case with the closeted teenage protagonist in The Delta, or are exiled from their former life, like Forty Shades of Blue’s Russian émigré wife, played by Dina Korzun. Both of those films were set in Sachs’s hometown of Memphis, not surprising since they feel like they emerge from hazy memories, ambivalent ones stuck somewhere between terror and affection. Even though his latest, the autobiographical Keep the Lights On, which charts a tortured ten-year relationship between two men, is his first New York–set movie, where Sachs has lived since he relocated in 1985, it also takes the shape of an outsider’s story. The writer-director has fashioned as his surrogate Erik, a documentary filmmaker played by Danish star Thure Lindhardt. Originally written as a New York–raised Jew, Erik, by virtue of Lindhardt’s casting, became a stranger in a strange land. This disconnect provides Keep the Lights On with its most fascinating and enriching element, transforming what might have been a self-regarding, insular film into an empathetic and broad portrait of souls in distress.
But first, it’s about bodies in motion. Keep the Lights On doesn’t withhold sex; its hottest commingling of flesh comes right at the beginning. In 1998, a pre-internet bit of cruising finds Erik trolling for phone sex with local boys. After filling in his latest caller on the length of his uncut dick, he gets an invite for face-time with Paul, who turns out to be a fresh-as-buttermilk blond beauty played by Zachary Booth. Sachs films their anonymous encounter from a similar, single-take camera remove as Chantal Akerman used in her infamous durational lesbian coupling scene in Je tu il elle, but he makes more space for real friction and body heat. Sachs will continue to offer somewhat explicit sexual situations in the film, but none of them has the erotic abandon of this first encounter. After this inauspicious first night, Erik and Paul, a semi-closeted lawyer, as it turns out, will become two parts of an incongruous couple, wending their way through an on-again, off-again decade-long relationship. But the lack of ease with which their sex occurs as the film soldiers on is the most telling sign that these two probably don’t belong together.
Even more than a tale of failed, or at least irreversibly compromised, romance, Keep the Lights On is an affecting, unrelenting examination of addiction. One wonders if Erik and Paul might have ended up together if not for Paul’s drug dependence, which initially registers to Erik as an off-putting tic to work around, but ends up, naturally, as a detriment to their happiness as much as to Paul’s well being. Since the film is told from Erik’s point of view, Paul remains an abstraction, even disappearing for large swaths of screen time, leaving us and Erik to wonder where he’s gone. The effect this instills in the viewer is a recurring, sickening worry, which, as anyone in love knows, is an unavoidable byproduct of a long-term relationship. The revelation of Keep the Lights On is that Erik’s concern for Paul becomes the crux of the film more than their love for one another. The initial moments of titillation have given way to something remarkably humane, even raw. In Sachs’s deeply felt film, love is pain.
The excruciation of romance—the gap between the idealized and the real—is most acutely felt in the film because of Lindhardt’s performance. The counterintuitive casting of this Danish actor pays off in dividends. With his disarming, gap-toothed, psychological transparency, he so fully embodies Erik, making him a singular, idiosyncratic character unto himself, that one forgets the film began as a work of autobiography at all. Lindhardt, who’s been acting since he was a teenager (he was featured in Bille August’s Oscar-nominated Pelle the Conquerer), has an astonishing ease in front of the camera, both in physical and emotional terms. Lindhardt’s slightly ravaged but attractively oddball looks—which contrast well with Booth’s smooth, boy-band handsomeness—and almost ungainly physique make him an off-center star, but he further complicates his leading man status here by diving with full force into a specific New York-by-way-of-Scandinavia neuroticism.
As one can imagine, there’s nothing else quite like him on American screens: neither trying to be masculine nor effeminate, never afraid to come off as slightly pathetic in his beseeching to Paul while at the same time finding surprising pockets of strength in every other line reading, Lindhardt’s Erik is an arresting creation, both an authentic sketching of a multidimensional contemporary gay man and a gratifyingly kinky character pleasurable to watch in his eccentricities. It’s his heartache that is most palpable. Late in the film, when Erik and Paul’s relationship has reached its nadir, and Erik holds Paul’s hand during a lurid bit of mutual debasement (without spoiling the contents of the devastating scene, let’s just say it’s operatic in its sexual humiliation in a way that only cynics like Lars von Trier usually dare), Lindhardt wordlessly conveys a long-term anguish so deeply felt that it negates the scenario’s Grand Guignol potential. This hits home so hard because Lindhardt has spent so much time conveying something particularly rare for the movies—innate goodness. Ultimately, Keep the Lights On is a film about care, about what to do when you can’t help but want to save the one you love, even if he doesn’t deserve you.
Sachs captures all of these complex sentiments in a series of stringent compositions that never call attention to themselves but remain undeniably artful. Shot by cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis, who brought an abstract, almost primitive terror to Dogtooth, Keep the Lights On is suffused throughout with a mix of lush, fleshly beauty and a detached apprehensiveness that acknowledges that this beauty could crumble at any moment. As implied in the expressive opening credits–which are decorated by the nude sketches of Sachs’s artist husband, Boris Torres—gay eroticism is often informed by an impossible physical ideal. The film peels back that surface; it starts off undeniably sexy and proceeds to wear its viewers and its characters down to a nub. Though not exactly confessional cinema, it still feels like a secret whispered in the audience’s ears. Sachs has in the past shown himself to be a master at sketching loneliness, but with Keep the Lights On he proves himself a poet of melancholy. And it’s a melancholy that doesn’t come across as a pose, as in so many American independent films. It’s genuinely lived in, even as it feels like the work of an outsider in his own world.