By Don Simpson | September 7, 2012
Director: Ira Sachs
Writers: Ira Sachs, Mauricio Zacharias
Starring: Thure Lindhardt, Zachary Booth, Julianne Nicholson, Souleymane Sy Savane, Paprika Steen, David Anzuelo, Miguel del Toro, Maria Dizzia, Sebastian La Cause
I like the trend in New Queer Cinema of portraying LGBT characters in — what audiences have come to accept as — traditionally heterosexual contexts. It used to be that Queer Cinema set out to portray alternative lifestyles, but recent films such as Andrew Haigh’s Weekend and Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are Alright go to great lengths to prove that the love between LGBT characters is no different than if the characters were heterosexual. And while I do not condone social conformity, I think it might be necessary for the LGBT community to continue with this approach if equal rights are to ever be achieved. So, writer-director Ira Sachs does just that…
Sachs’ Keep the Lights On follows the relationship between a Danish documentary filmmaker named Erik (Thure Lindhardt) and a literary agent named Paul (Zachary Booth). Whereas the fleeting romance in Haigh’s Weekend takes place seemingly in real time over the course of a weekend, Erik and Paul’s relationship spans an entire decade. The film’s structure is perfectly linear. It is 1998 when Erik first meets Paul on a phone sex line; next thing we know, they are living together. Keep the Lights On proceeds like a series of individual snapshots or portraits of the characters’ lives. Sachs proves to be very interested in the presentation of his characters and the space in which they exist; his approach is almost painterly, thanks in no small part to the grainy 16mm cinematography of Thimios Bakatakis (Dogtooth). Keep the Lights On functions as an episodic depiction of Erik’s most powerful memories of his relationship with Paul; and by following their relationship for so long, Sachs uses the film as an observation of the evolution of gay life in NYC. A rainbow (mind the pun) of characters come and go, and they each possess very subtle traits and qualities from their specific time and place.
Erik is quite purposefully cast as a foreigner, an outsider — Paul is the first real American he has dated — his boyishly unkempt appearance magnifies his dislocation from the adults around him. Erik’s appearance also seems to trap him in time, as if stuck in a time capsule; while everyone else changes — albeit minutely — he remains lost and confused like a naive child. It takes a while for Erik to mature and come to an understanding of the world in which he lives; in fact, Erik does not seem to reach adulthood until he comes to the final conclusion that Paul is not his soul-mate. Of course we see that coming from 100 miles away, as Keep the Lights On is like watching a slow motion car crash. We know the only possible outcome, and it is very difficult to watch it happen.
A greater level of intimacy and poignancy is gained by the rich autobiographical qualities of Keep the Lights On. As Sachs reflects upon his relationship with Bill Clegg, he opts share the blame for their multitude of missteps and lapses of judgment. In Keep the Lights On, addiction is not one person’s fault, nor is it only one person’s cross to bear; addiction has many forms and effects many people in different ways.