One of the surprise mentions on this Independent Spirits Awards nomination list, and one of the few true blue "indies" arguably shortlisted was Ira Sachs' Keep the Lights On. I saw the film months ago and while I may never in any way call myself a fan of the work, it has it some small ways stayed with me. Chronicling the turbulent, decade long relationship between Erik (nominee Thure Lindhardt), a fledgling documentary filmmaker and Paul (Zachary Booth), a closeted and destructive lawyer on the rise, Keep the Lights On is a gay romantic drama that manages both to sidestep and fall into traps of homosexual romances. On the outset, Sachs, telling a story that's presented as deeply personal, seems to connect to the loneliness of the male romantic. There's a small connection to the hard and sometimes sad reality of lost love and the small shades of desperation that can come about, whether cosmically or not, when there's a glimmer of passion and a shed of hope in an attraction that reads as wrong from the start.
Firstly, Erik and Paul meet on a phone hook-up line-- there's a small taste of period as Sachs' mid 90s tale begins before the great boon of online dating-- and once ritual sets of business are established enjoy a night of great sex with the conceit that that's the end of that. Erik, sensitive and inquisitive, a Danish expatriate residing in Manhattan. Lindhardt handles his role this a maturity and a frankness, but sharply guides through Erik's sometimes recklessness and confusion with a grounded center that's easiest thing to latch onto in a film that too many times loses focus and drifts into absurdity. Paul, on the other hand, is nearly all id and almost completely devoid of relatable charges. Booth is a handsome young actor, and there's moments that spark between him and Lindhardt but there's never this combustible passion between the two characters that make all the struggles and difficulties and fights seem worth it. There's hardly anything pulling us in to the two of them, or a rooting factor on why they should keep going.
The majority of the struggles are irrationally one-sided as well. Paul, stressed from work and the secrets he clings to, uses drugs as his permission to get closer to Erik-- sexually, emotionally and mentally. Erik, as the years go on, and doomed with the sad sack role of healer and enabler, loses not just his strength, but a good deal of audience goodwill along the way. Sachs deserves praise for trying to bring about an honest and series depiction of gay lovers trying to stay afloat, and even more for the sad bearings that in this day in age that's still a difficult story to bring to the screen, but there's little that's illuminating or striking about the doomed love story of Erik and Paul. The two characters are seemingly more interesting apart than together, and Keep the Lights On's strongest card-- the role of Erik in Lindhardt's delicately nuanced portrait-- loses its grasp and perspective as the relationship goes on.
The unfortunate case for Keep the Lights On is that it's promisingly unapologetic beginnings drift more toward the arbitrary just as it should start to soar. C