Ira Sachs' autobiographical stroll through Manhattan’s gay scene is a fascinating relationship drama that lacks conviction.
"I’ve been hiding crucial events in my life since I was 13," Erik Rothman (Thure Lindhardt) tells his friend Claire (Julianne Nicholson). For it was at this age that Erik first slept with a man.
But his statement applies more broadly to Keep the Lights On in two ways: first as a sweeping gay drama unique in queer cinema’s still-limited (mainstream) history; and second as co-writer/director Ira Sachs' autobiographical examination of a fundamentally unsound 10-year romance with New York literary agent Bill Clegg. Clegg told his side of the story in the 2010 memoir 'Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man'. Now it’s Sachs’ turn.
Erik is Sachs' partly fictionalised stand-in, a Danish documentarian rather than an American narrative filmmaker. Introduced in 1998 impatiently sorting through potential hook-ups on a phone sex line, he meets Paul Lucy (Zachary Booth) during a casual apartment tumble. Soon the two are an item, having hot sex while Paul smokes crack.
Erik’s amenable to having smoke blown into his mouth as part of the passionate delirium, but Paul keeps disappearing for days and sometimes weeks on end. They fight ("You’re killing me! You’re killing me! You’re killing me!" Erik screams into Paul’s voicemail), break-up, reconcile and do it all over again as Paul alternates between rehab and increasingly severe binges.
There isn’t much sense of score-settling, even if ever-patient Erik is something of a willing martyr, constantly trying to save his errant boyfriend from himself. Their relationship is depicted entirely from his POV, rendering Paul as something of a vain cipher. Their compatibility is conveyed in scenes of delighted mutual carnality, some brief conversations about art and poetry, and that’s about it. As the film progresses through its rhythmless paces, monotony sets in, making you long for the brusque vigour of a comparable work like Maurice Pialat’s 1980 We Won’t Grow Old Together.
Of greater interest is Sachs’ reconstruction of one man’s decade floating through Manhattan’s gay scene. (When Erik meets a young man in a club who says he lives in Brooklyn, he immediately vomits — ostensibly from drinking too much, but it’s an hilariously violent reaction.) Erik’s working on a documentary about Avery Willard, a forgotten photographer and chronicler of New York gay life from the '40s through to the '90s (the real 24-minute short, In Search of Avery Willard, was directed by Cary Kehayan and premiered this summer).
One interviewee insists Willard was talentless, valuable only for his snapshots of a long-suppressed subculture. Filming in carefully framed but unshowy master shots, Sachs is careful to make sure no such accusations can be levied against him.
Evidently made on a tight budget, a decade’s worth of change is only evidenced through Erik’s ever-upgrading cell phones, plus a brief scene highlighting the introduction of crystal meth to gay social life. Well-intended and far from merely 'worthy', Keep the Lights On nonetheless lacks the conviction or sweep to convey anything more than a vague sense that These Things Happened.
Ira Sachs tends to make pleasingly outré films, so we’re interested.
Monitoring the peaks and troughs of this fractious relationship is more fascinating than enjoyable.
Lacks a sense of time passing.