Keep the Lights On is a haunting, realistic account of a ten-year relationship splintered by drugs. Semi-autobiographical, Director and Co-Writer Ira Sachs (who penned the screenplay with Mauricio Zacharias) did an excellent job portraying addiction – emotional and physical – in this love story.
Erik (Thure Lindhardt) plays a Danish documentary filmmaker who is post-break-up and calls sex phone lines (like today’s Craigslist Casual Encounters) to find potential, informal sex partners, which is how he meets Paul (Zachary Booth). Though Erik continues to see various men, Paul becomes a constant in Erik’s life. Unlike Erik, Paul has a consistent office job, working as a lawyer at a publishing house. He also uses crack but masks his addiction to it for quite some time. Their relationship escalates and soon they move in together. Paul starts to disappear on weekends and no-showing for work, which prompts Erik to intervene and Paul to reluctantly agree to go to rehab.
Paul returns, sober, then relapses when Erik is away winning an award for his documentary at the Berlin Film Festival. Paul goes missing for days, then weeks. Erik finally finds him, high, in a pricy hotel room, the alcohol and drugs back. Paul tells Erik he should leave, but he insists on staying – even while Paul has sex with another man, calling out Erik’s name in the process. I think the most heartbreaking scene of the film is when Erik holds Paul’s hand during this. You see the addiction at its worst, but Erik’s love at its best.
Lindhardt’s acting is top-notch; even when he is not saying a word, his face expresses so much. Homosexual or not, you find yourself relating to Erik’s care and concern for Paul. You feel Erik’s wanting to help him, but also his confusion over it. Part of you wants to tell him to walk away, as he has become more like Paul’s sponsor than soulmate, though the other part of you wants him to stick it out. We’ve all been in those relationships, drug addictions-no drug addictions, where we know we should leave, we wrestle with the idea time and time again, but we can’t.
In the end, Erik learns that he must lose Paul to find himself.
Booth is pretty believable as Paul, yet when compared to Lindhardt, his acting does not quite seem up to par; at times, I found I did not feel as bad for Paul as I wanted to or should have given his grave situation. Perhaps this is more a reflection of the written character versus the acting itself. Maybe we are not supposed to be in Paul’s head as much as we are drawn to Erik’s. I just know I wanted to like Paul more and get to know him better.
Though the film is beautifully shot by Thimios Bakatakis, note that it is not for those with sensitive eyes; there is a lot of nudity. A lot. Granted, they are well-done, artistic scenes, yet I had no idea going in that there would be so many.
The music, by Arthur Russell, especially the cello, makes non-dialogue moments even more gripping. This, coupled with the landscape of New York, makes for a perfect ambience.
All in all, I would recommend Keep the Lights On as an honest, raw story about two men struggling to stay together and the love that eventually tears them apart.