Directed by: Ira Sachs.
Written by: Ira Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias.
Starring: Thure Lindhardt (Erik Rothman), Zachary Booth (Paul Lucy), Julianne Nicholson (Claire),Souleymane Sy Savane (Alassane), Paprika Steen (Karen), Miguel del Toro (Igor).
There is a certain degree of irrationality involved in any relationship. No matter how long you are with someone, you never truly know them. You can understand them and love them, but everyone has their own private experience and thoughts, that make them somewhat of a mystery to even those closest to them. Keep the Lights On is a movie about relationship between Erik and Paul that last a decade, and yet Erik never truly understands Paul – never figures out who he is. Watching the movie you cannot help but think that Erik wasted ten years of his life.
They meet in 1998, through a phone sex line. Erik (Thure Lindhardt) does this often – sometimes meeting other gay men he doesn’t much care for, but he does enjoy the anonymous sex. One day, the hookup he sets up is with Paul (Zachary Booth) and the two share an instant connection. Paul warns him right off though that he has a girlfriend, so he shouldn’t expect much. The first half of that sentence may be a lie – we certainly never meet a girlfriend – but the second part is the truth. Erik shouldn’t expect much from Paul. But he does anyway.
Erik is a documentary filmmaker, whose rich family supports his career, as he makes films that few people will ever eventually see, and spends years on each of them. Paul is a literary agent, and reminds Erik that some people actually have to work for a living – go into the office day in, day out and make money. So it’s somewhat surprising that it isn’t Erik who falls into drug addiction, but Paul. Paul disappears for days at a time, and Erik frantically searches New York for him each and every time – and takes him back each and every time too, no matter what Paul has done. This goes on for years – the two fight, break-up, get back together, and on and on and on.
The film was co-written and directed by Ira Sachs, who based the movie on one of his own long term relationships, that eventually came to an end. The movie is an insightful look into the changing nature of the gay scene in New York from the late 1990s to the mid-2000s. And it is also a sympathetic portrait of Erik (who, of course, is the character Sachs based on himself). Erik is a nice guy – an intelligent guy – who has a supportive group of friends and family, who constantly try and talk him out taking Paul back – but Erik will not listen to reason. It is to Thure Lindhardt’s credit that he makes Erik into such a sympathetic character, even though I cannot be the only audience member who gets frustrated with him for not seeing Paul in a clear light. I also liked the visual look of the film – drained of color, the cinematography takes on a sad look. And this is not a movie that shies away from the more intimate details of gay sex, which is somewhat refreshing, since most movies still only have gay characters to be the wacky, sexless best friend of the female protagonist.
But there is a gaping hole at the center of Keep the Light On – and that’s Paul. Who is this guy? The movie offers no insight into who he is or why he does what he does. But perhaps that is the point. If Ira Sachs could not figure out his lover in the 10 years they were together, why should I expect him to figure out Paul in this movie? Still, the question gnawed on me throughout the movie. What we are left with is a portrait of a one sided relationship – where Erik does everything for Paul and gets nothing in return, and because of that, he pretty much wastes ten years of his life. How sad.