Ira Sachs (Forty Shades of Blue, Married Life; the latter debuted at Toronto and New York) has a distinctive way of working, memorable even where it doesn't completely satisfy. His new movie isn't necessarily a different approach to filming a gay love affair (this one dragging on unevenly for over nine years). It just seems more authentic than most. You wonder if the sex scenes are vérité filming; if even the relationship between the two men itself, painful, damaged by the one partner's serious substance abuse problem, might be at least partly real. Indeed the screenplay, coauthored by Sachs with Mauricio Zacharias, draws heavily on data from Sachs' own life. On the other hand, a lot is left out.
The main character, Erik (the slightly odd, apparently vulnerable Thure Lindhardt ), is seen working on his long-in-gestation documentary film about Seventies gay pornographer-filmmaker Avery Willard, and he has an older sister, Karen (Paprika Steen), also living in NYC, whom he sees a couple of times for searching talks in Danish. He's not a cipher, as the New Yorker critic, David Denby, has written of both lovers. But his lover Paul (Zachary Booth), the one with the drug problem, whose point of view is made less central, is something of a cipher. Paul's just not there, quite literally for long unbearable stretches for Erik once they live together and Paul apparently goes on unexplained binges. It's paradoxical: Keep the Lights On seems painfully authentic and also sort of empty, perhaps more a knowing, boldly honest outline, but still just an outline, rather than a full-fleged movie.
Erik and Paul first meet at Paul's in the late Nineties for casual sex, via some kind of phone connect-a-gay system Erik has evidently used a lot: he has a line, a rap, even a special voice he uses for it. They obviously click, and there's the first of a series of real-seeming, not particularly pleasant or fun-to-watch sex scenes. But then Paul says he's sorry, he has a girlfriend. He's a lawyer for a publisher, but that's all we get of his work life. Soon when he ane Erik hook up again Paul pulls a pipe out. It's not explained. It could be hash or crack or opium. But it's crack. This is New York. One day when Erik and Paul have lived together uneasily for years and Paul has gone deep down into his addiciton after an intervention and a furlough from work in Minnesota for rehab, he's in a fancy boutique hotel room near the High Line -- shades of McQueen's ponderous Shame. He's gotten the flashy room at a bargain because it's the tail end of Fashion Week. Look at the room, Paul says, isn't it nice? It's one of his longest conversations.
Erik sustains this relationship and this movie. Lindhardt is a considerable enough actor to hae costarred with Mads Mikkelson (in Flaame and Citron), and he takes chances here. Zachary Booth is more of a lightweight, this time anyway. Booth provides a few quick fleeting moments of delicacy and nuance. But it's a tough job playing "not there" of an addict pretending to be hard-working and reliable. In defending himself against the coming charge of worthlessness Paul has the advantage -- and this is both a potential confusion in the movie's structure and a pleasing complexity -- that Erik, while he may proclaim himself to be a "top," doesn't really "work" but he's been muddling along pretty much exclusively just working on his documentary for years, while Paul is a busy ostensibly responsible nine-to-fiveer with a high-powered job at the office. Only Erik is really doing something, because he finishes the film and wins a prize with it. And when that happens Paul is on one of his binges, like Francis Bacon's lover George Dyer who committed suicide in their hotel room while the artist was being lionized in Paris.
Sachs gives Erik the sister and the specific work (there are actual interviews and film clips: Sachs himself was working on an Avery Willard documentary) . Sachs gives Erik one clearly fleshed-out friend, the loyal Claire (Julianne Nicholson), who, being in her mid-thirties like him, may want him to father her child, a request renewed when her boyfriend Alassane (Souleymane Sy Savane, star of Bahrani's Goodbye Solo) doesn't want to. But while Paul is surrounded by people at a party when Erik gives a passionate declaration of love and thanks after he has returned from rehab, he doesn't have any identifiable friends of his own. He barely has a point of view that we know of.
This film reminded me of the English director Andrew Haigh's from last year, Weekend, also an intense and boldly honest depiction of a gay love affiar. Weekend is a kind of tour de force, a non-stop depiction of a relationship that runs for only a few days. Keep the Lights On has the opposite kind of time-scheme. It has to skip ahead a few years at a time with inter-title datelines as it trawls through its nine years. Weekend, as Variety's Justin Chang notes, delves into gay identity politics in ways that Sachs eschews. Sachs provides the markers of Erik's learning he isn't HIV-positive, of the holiday party, of visits to the country and to a Chelsea gallery. But he prefers to focus exclusively on the relationship in all its claustrophobic intensity: that's where alone the movie excels.
Whatever else is happening in the world outside, when Paul is away, Erik crumbles. To compensate, he has unsatisfying trysts with the improbably self-absorbed body-builder Russ (Sebastian La Cause), who turns out to use crack too. At a dance bar he meets a cute lovable artist called Igor (Miguel del Toro, not to be confused with Sachs' husband Boris Tores, who did the sublimely gay nude paintings used for the opening titles), and Igor may be the nicer, healthier lover Erik might have had, or might seek when he and Paul finally split up.
Keep the Lights On has understandably gotten raves; only Denby's dismissive one pulls the score down. It goes where American mainstream or straight films do not dare, chronicling a relationship with the boldness of Bergman. As Erik, Lindhardt gives an original, memorable performance, worthy of the more searching aspects of the screenplay. One walks out with the sense of a lived experience. But there are both sides to this movie. The stiffness of the role of Paul and of Booth's acting make the picture one-sided, even baffling -- though of course there's no accounting for taste or for dysfunctionality or codependency in a relationship. It's just that the screenplay could have folded in a few more details of event, period, and character that would have more fully rounded out Erik and Paul's story.
The camerawork of Thimios Bakatakis and the use of Super 16 color film give warmth to the images. As before Sachs shows a distinctive sense of music, here focusing on the compositions of Arthur Russell. Keep the Lights On debuted at Sundance, continuing at a number of other festivals with a limited US theatrical opening starting September 7, 2012. It had a French release Aug. 22 (well received there, particularly by some of the hippest critics, Allociné press score 3.5) and the film is scheduled for a UK one Nov. 2.
©2012 Chris Knipp
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