Winner of the Grand Jury Award last January at Sundance and opening here Friday, Ira Sach’s “Keep the Lights On” raises an interesting issue regarding what one brings to a film in that “Keep the Lights On” is, in a sense, two movies.
There’s the “Keep the Lights On” for people familiar with its backstory and the “Keep the Lights On” for those who are, so to speak, in the dark. I was basically one of the latter when I first saw this episodic “Scenes From a Marriage”-style saga of a stormy decade-long romantic relationship, although, given that one protagonist is a filmmaker, I assumed there were some autobiographical elements. (To maintain your unspoiled innocence, stop reading after third—or even the second–paragraph.)
Initially engrossing, I found “Keep the Lights On” ever more meandering and, despite one or two powerhouse scenes, only intermittently touching–not to mention curiously averse to ending on the tragic note that the material seemed to demand. Erik (Thure Lindhardt), a Danish documentarian living in New York, and his lover Paul (Zachary Booth), would seem to be antithetical types when they first hook up. Erik is emotionally open, sexually expressive, and handsome as a model albeit when it comes to his career, something of a slacker; Paul is uptight, closeted, and a successful workaholic, with a job in publishing. He’s also petulant, whiny, and a secret crack-head. After five years and a stint of couple therapy, Erik gets Paul to go into rehab. But that’s not the movie’s happy ending.
Loved by men and admired by women, Erik finally enjoys a measure of professional success (his documentary on an underground gay photographer wins the Teddy for best LGBT movie at the Berlin Film Festival). Paul meanwhile jumps off the wagon and down the rabbit hole of degradation. The movie’s most wrenching scene has Erik tracking his partner to the expensive hotel where he’s been on a weeks-long crack and hustler binge and holding Paul’s hand as Paul is roughly serviced by a smirking young stud. But that’s not the movie’s devastating closer.
And here the spoiling begins. One need only read Variety’s review to learn that “Keep the Lights On” is a film a clef: “It’s no secret that, with Erik standing in for Sachs, Paul is a version of his former longtime partner, literary agent Bill Clegg, and that in 2010, Clegg published a memoir of his condition, “Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man”. Thus, “Keep the Lights On” is not just two movies, but also the other half of a known story.
Unaware of any possible score-settling, I took it for granted that Sachs was invested in his filmmaker protagonist, and that was why, despite his initial difficulties, Erik was so much more attractive, caring, confident and together than Paul, even though Paul is by far the more compelling character. More puzzling was the mysterious connection between Erik’s inability to leave Paul and Sachs’ disinclination to wrap up and end his movie. Whose pathology was at work here, the character’s or the filmmaker’s. Turns out that they’re identical.
As filmmaking, “Keep On the Lights” has definite qualities. There’s some pungent local color, an effective absence of conventional transition scenes, and a pleasingly hazy quality to the interactions. Still, the movie’s elaborately failed closure only makes sense once you understand that the filmmaker’s all-too-human desire for self-justification apparently trumped the ruthless self-control required to make a work of art.