I don’t want to be in the dark with you: Keep the Lights On

Keep the Lights On (2012)

Keep the Lights On is brutally honest and devastating like love can be when ruined by drug addiction and by one person’s dependence on another

Keep the Lights On


Di­rect­ed by Ira Sachs. Writ­ten by Ira Sachs and Mauri­cio Zacharias. Star­ring Thure Lind­hardt, Zachary Booth, Ju­lianne Nichol­son, Souley­mane Sy Sa­vane, Pa­pri­ka Steen, Miguel del Toro, Se­bas­t­ian La Cause, David Anzue­lo, Maria Dizzia, Justin Rein­sil­ber and Ed Vas­sal­lo.

When Keep the Lights On be­gins, the year is 1998 and we see Erik (Thure Lind­hardt) ly­ing in his bed in a dim room look­ing for some­one on a phone sex hot­line. It is a per­fect open­ing scene that il­lus­trates what the film wants to do, show­ing a gay man try­ing to find some con­nec­tion in a city like New York. Af­ter a few frus­trat­ed at­tempts, Erik leaves to meet a guy he just spoke to and walks to his place to the sound of a dis­so­nant min­i­mal­ist vi­o­la that seems to trans­late his state of mind. It is as if the in­stru­ment is also look­ing for a song. When Erik en­ters Paul’s (Zachary Booth) apart­ment, they don’t ex­change a word and jump straight to the kiss­ing. No need to waste time when they both know what they want, right?

Keep the Lights On is in essence a film about strangers, about peo­ple that we get to know – or think we know enough – but who al­ways find a way to sur­prise us (for bet­ter or worse). Erik is a Dan­ish film­mak­er work­ing on a doc­u­men­tary about lit­tle-known gay artist Av­ery Willard and Paul is a lawyer in the pub­lish­ing in­dus­try. They feel strong­ly at­tract­ed to each oth­er, and while Paul ini­tial­ly has a girl­friend (“don’t get your hopes up,” he warns Erik), soon he breaks up with her and the two men move in to­geth­er. But Paul also has a drug prob­lem, which be­gins to cre­ate fis­sures in their re­la­tion­ship when his be­hav­ior be­comes more and more er­rat­ic and he even dis­ap­pears for days with­out telling where he is.

What di­rec­tor Ira Sachs does here is tell us about his own long-term re­la­tion­ship with Bill Clegg, a lit­er­ary agent who pub­lished a mem­oir de­tail­ing his ad­dic­tion to crack co­caine and on which this film is based. Along nine years of the char­ac­ters’ re­la­tion­ship, we fol­low how ad­dic­tion can slow­ly de­stroy what two peo­ple have to­geth­er, grow­ing from some­thing that seems ini­tial­ly harm­less un­til it has be­come a very se­ri­ous is­sue. It is clear to no­tice, for in­stance, how Paul’s li­bido de­creas­es when he is not on drugs or how Erik mis­takes ac­cep­tance for per­mis­sive­ness, tak­ing a lot more from Paul then most peo­ple could en­dure and try­ing to be some kind of sav­ior to a boyfriend who is clear­ly dis­sat­is­fied with what they have.

Thus, it is only nat­ur­al that their re­la­tion­ship turns into a source of suf­fer­ing for both. With­out seem­ing to re­al­ize the pat­tern he fol­lows, look­ing for the same per­son in every new boyfriend (even the name Paul is a vari­a­tion of his last one’s, Pao­lo), Erik adopts a near­ly sto­ic at­ti­tude, at some point even phys­i­cal­ly hurt­ing him­self as a cry of de­spair in a de­struc­tive re­la­tion­ship. Lindhardt’s per­for­mance is in­tense, while Sachs is smart to em­pha­size Erik’s dis­sat­is­fac­tion by fram­ing him in cor­ners and pierc­ing the film’s yel­low cin­e­matog­ra­phy with blue de­tails that be­come more and more no­tice­able. Lat­er on, the blue takes over when we wit­ness an ex­treme­ly de­press­ing scene in­volv­ing a male pros­ti­tute in a ho­tel room.

It may be hard for some view­ers to be­lieve that any­one can be so pas­sive when in love – and I’ve heard peo­ple com­plain that the film is un­re­al­is­tic – but what makes Keep the Lights On so hon­est is how it de­picts Erik’s grad­ual re­al­iza­tion that he is stuck in an un­healthy re­la­tion­ship. At a cer­tain mo­ment, Paul even no­tices that their apart­ment floor is buck­ling, in an in­tel­li­gent rep­re­sen­ta­tion of what is hap­pen­ing to them. When Erik points out to an as­sis­tant that there is some­thing that needs to be fixed in the doc­u­men­tary, he is told that they can fix it lat­er – which il­lus­trates his own at­ti­tude to­wards Paul, since he re­fus­es to face the ele­phant in the room and seems to be­lieve that the two can work out their prob­lems in bed.

Sachs also un­der­stands what it is like to feel at home with some­one, even as you re­al­ize that that per­son has al­ways been a stranger in your life. “You smell like you,” Paul says in one of the most re­veal­ing scenes in the film. Noth­ing can be as sad as the re­al­iza­tion that things are so wrecked be­tween two peo­ple that they can­not be mend­ed any­more. In the end, when Erik is forced into a de­ci­sion, he is first seen bathed in yel­low in the show­er; but then, as he is un­able to sleep, there is blue every­where in the bath­room and we know what this means. I love also the green light that com­bines both col­ors when Erik and Paul meet at the stair­case of Paul’s place – and no­tice in this scene how Paul wears a yel­low T‑shirt and Erik is dressed in blue.

Reach­ing a con­clu­sion that im­press­es for its ma­tu­ri­ty – es­pe­cial­ly as the dis­so­nant sounds of Arthur Russell’s voice and vi­o­la fi­nal­ly seem to find a song as well (“Every step is mov­ing me up,” he sings) – Keep the Lights On is the kind of gay-themed dra­ma that is be­com­ing in­creas­ing­ly rare nowa­days: one that is bru­tal­ly hon­est and dev­as­tat­ing like ac­tu­al love can be when ru­ined by drug ad­dic­tion and by one person’s de­pen­dence on an­oth­er.

May 20, 2017


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