As the title might suggest, “Keep The Lights On” is a film about exposure. More specifically, it’s about the full exposure of one tumultuous relationship over the course of 10 years, documenting all the passionate highs and devastating lows typical of modern romance.
In his fifth feature, co-written by Mauricio Zacharias, director Ira Sachs (“Married Life”) offers a heavy, raw, emotional and slightly biographical account of the courtship of Erik (Thure Lindhardt, “The Island”), a Danish documentary filmmaker and his lawyer boyfriend Paul (Zachary Booth, “The Beaver”).
When we first meet our protagonist Erik, it is 1998, and he is searching for an anonymous hook up by phone. However ,what starts as a casual, carnal encounter ends up being much more when he falls for then-closeted law student Paul. The two become a couple and for a while, an all seems to be well.
Unfortunately for them, their brief honeymoon phase is disrupted by Paul’s growing crack cocaine addiction. What ensues is a desperately honest portrayal of addiction and dependency.
Erik, a hopeless romantic, refuses to let go of Paul even as the odds of recovery become more bleak with each relapse. Paul becomes as manipulative as he is intoxicated, aware of Erik’s need to save him and taking advantage of it at every turn. But in spite of all of this, Erik remains committed to Paul over the course of many years. Trying to parse out why is what elevates a somewhat simple film to captivating dramatic heights.
Taking on such a taxing subject matter, Sachs opts to let this modern love story speak for itself, setting the film’s action in New York City but keeping the vibrant background muted. With most scenes occurring in single rooms with few additional cast members, it is clear that what matters here is only that which is occurring between these two people, and at many times, merely what Erik is experiencing.
The stylistic direction implies the characters need to feel something. One can only speculate what exactly that something is as the characters search high and low for it and fall into a spiral of sex, drugs and each other.
“Keeps The Lights On” offers a subtle, complex counterpoint to the current film market by eschewing flashy superficial drama for a tragic yet beautiful visual anthropology of modern romance.