From American director Ira Sachs (best known for previous efforts Married Life and Forty Shades of Blue) comes Keep the Lights On (2012), a sensitive, meandering drama set amongst the bohemian cafés and art galleries of New York City. Brought together through a hedonistic cocktail of sex and drugs, Danish filmmaker Erik (Thure Lindhart) and up-and-coming lawyer Paul (Zachary Booth) embark on a tumultuous, decade-long relationship, littered with highs, lows, unconditional love and crippling addiction, complemented by a stirring soundtrack from the late cellist/singer-songwriter Arthur Russell.
Eric begins the narrative as the more dependant half of the couple, craving support from Paul as he strives to complete his latest (soon to be Teddy Award-winning) documentary feature. With his beloved partner almost constantly away – either on location or promoting his somewhat ‘precious’ film – Paul descends into substance abuse, with Erik left to pick up the pieces of a relationship in disarray. Irrevocably altered by the damaging effects of drug addiction and promiscuity, the pair struggle to reignite the smouldering embers of their former love.
Unashamedly indulgent and heavily stylised, Sachs’ Keep the Lights On is an uncompromising and frank portrayal of contemporary gay life in the ‘City that Never Sleeps’. Neither of the two lead characters are entirely sympathetic, both equally prone to impulsive acts and self-obsession, which quickly leads to a series of cataclysmic conflicts between the two men. Though such characterisation may well test the patience of more mainstream audiences, such harsh realism is key to the film’s numerous successes.
An arguably more divisive obstacle may well be the aesthetic approach employed by Sachs. Commandeering the trained eye of regarded Greek cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis (of 2009’s Dogtooth fame), who here favours intentionally rough and grainy 16mm, the texture of the image can sometimes hamper visibility during night scenes. With the world’s most recognisable city at spread in-front of him, it just seems a shame that Bakatakis went for the trendier, ‘Instagram’ option. That said, for some audience members, this rough-edged approach may be perfectly in-tune with their own unique taste and sensibilities.
For a film about addiction (in all its forms), Keep the Lights On does at times feel a little too pristine and clinical, lacking that genuine raw emotional edge seen in recent comparable releases such as Steve McQueen’s Shame (2011) – another New York-set drama about impulsive desires and need. However, thanks to two strong lead performances and Russell’s haunting aural accompaniment, Sachs’ latest endeavour remains an evocative, thought-provoking piece.
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