Keep the Lights On
Dir: Ira Sachs
Cert:18 • US: 101 min • Alarum Pictures • November 2, 2012
There’s been something of a renaissance in Queer Cinema over the last couple of years, with films such as Andrew Haigh’s Weekend and Travis Mathews’ I Want Your Love heralding an approach to gay male relationships that is mature and uncompromising. Ira Sachs’ Keep the Lights On is another example of a movie where the sexuality of the protagonists is an established, normative fact, rather than the source of a struggle that forms and dominates the narrative thrust. This creates the space to explore the complexities of the relationship itself without the need for the characters to justify its existence in the first place, though the history of a character’s struggle with their sexual identity may be a factor in how they deal with, or behave in, relationships, as it is for many of us. Keep the Lights On examines the different forms, and underlying causes, of addiction that may be related to that struggle.
Erik (Thure Lindhardt) and Paul (Zachary Booth) live in New York, an up-and-coming documentary maker and hard-working lawyer respectively. They first meet in 1998 when Erik is indulging in phone-sex with random strangers. Their casual hook-up develops into a serious relationship and it isn’t very long before Paul introduces drug taking into their lovemaking and their lives. Paul has a tendency to go AWOL for days on end and becomes aggressive when Erik challenges him. As the years pass and their relationship progresses it becomes clear that Erik and Paul care very deeply about each other, but their relationship is damaging because they are both damaged. As he becomes increasingly unhappy, Erik starts on the phone-sex again – perhaps his own form of addiction – and when a close friend challenges him as to why he didn’t communicate the seriousness of Paul’s behaviour, Erik counters: “I’ve been hiding crucial events in my life since I was 13 years old.” When you grow up concealing in this way, it’s hard to be an emotionally forthcoming adult and very difficult to change.
It also becomes clear that Erik craves, and is addicted to, Paul – to the idea of saving him perhaps, but also just to the drug of loving him. This addiction causes Erik to put himself in situations that are hard to fathom – holding Paul’s hand as a rent boy fucks him for example – but that’s the thing about being an addict isn’t it? It makes you delusional and crazy and sends you into a spiral of damaging behaviour. The other thing about addicts is how irritating they are and Sachs refuses to compromise on the often unsympathetic nature of these characters. At times, you just want to bash their heads together. Cycles of damaging behaviour are not only hard to break, they’re hard to portray; when characters keep going backwards, we have to go with them and, as a result, there are moments in the film when the narrative energy is somewhat deflated.
Like Weekend and I Want Your Love, Keep the Lights On has a verité feel to it, though the production values are high – this feels like quality film-making without the commercialised glossiness of, say, A Single Man. And like Haigh and Mathews, Sachs ends his movie with a sense of a new beginning for his characters while retaining an uncertainty in the direction of their lives. It’s too early to say whether we’re in a new golden age of Queer Cinema but, regardless of that, all three of these directors have produced a great springboard for contemporary queer film-makers to have confidence in what they’re doing and, for those of us watching their films, provided intelligent, difficult, grown-up, thoughtfully questioning stories.