This emotionally explicit odyssey of two gay men and the ups and downs of their relationship over the course of 10 years could just be a landmark film for queer cinema. With the amount of coverage and praise this 'gay' film made without any semblance of 'straight' sensibilities, it could be the first of its kind to crack the mainstream. Unfortunately, when all is said and done there's more to admire than truly fall in love with.
Keep the Lights On (2012) dir. Ira Sachs
Starring: Thure Lindhardt, Zachary Booth, Julianne Nicholson, Paprika Steen
By Alan Bacchus
Erik (Lindhardt) is a documentary filmmaker living in New York, introduced to us as he is calling some kind of phone sex hook-up line. Though he desires the pleasures of sex, his soulful eyes want more, a lasting and loving relationship. He finds this in Paul (Booth), whom he meets in one of those one-night-stand encounters. But Paul is in a straight relationship and not fully out of the closet. Despite the challenge, Erik can't abandon his heart and chases after him. Paul finally commits to switching sides and enters into a relationship with Erik.
It doesn't take long before cracks start to show, as Paul's drug addiction taints their sex life, and his demands as a workaholic lawyer conflict with Erik's more flexible freelance lifestyle. Over the course of the 10 years Paul moves in and out of Erik's life, sometimes just disappearing without a word of notice. And yet Erik continues to want his affection, something Paul continually refuses to give. At several points in the relationship ultimatums are given, eventually forcing Paul and Erik to make a full-stop decision to be with each other or not.
Despite the intertitle cards that signify the change in time, we never get the feeling of time passing. Their haircuts certainly don't change, but neither do the characters. And apart from the graphic sex they engage in frequently there's not much chemistry. Erik, the documentarian, is the more passionate of the two, constantly evaluating the relationship and looking to express his feelings. Paul, whom we see less of, is conservative, mostly aloof and independent.
Their conflicts over the period seem to be a continuous struggle between Erik's emotional needs and Paul's independence. Their descent is as tragic and frustrating as the doomed love story in Blue Valentine.
More subtly, we notice time pass through the gradual change in visual palette. Early in the film, Sachs filters his world through a grainy verite look, a wonderfully textured cinematography, though unpolished and rough, but still artful and rich. Gradually, the graininess disappears over time and, by the end, without being noticeable, the film is clean and spotless.
But the honesty in Sach's storytelling breaks through the narrative deficiencies, achieving a mood and feeling of heartbreaking sadness without the bleakness of Blue Valentine.