Forty Shades of Blue (2005) and Married Life (2007) director Ira Sachs’ Teddy and Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winning drama Keep the Lights On (2012) is an honest and heart-rending tale of a torturous New York relationship, told in a fractured chronological fashion across a ten year period. A deeply personal voyage into filmmaking for its American director, Sachs’ drug-ravaged love story is a refreshingly universal example of LGBT cinema that, much like Andrew Haigh’s hugely successful British contribution Weekend (2011), transcends the constraints of its apparently specialist sub-genre.
Thure Lindhardt plays Erik, a Danish documentary filmmaker living in New York City. His promiscuous lifestyle is all in a vain attempt to find true love – something he initially believes he has unearthed when he meets Paul (Zachary Booth), a handsome, yet reserved publishing lawyer. What begins as a fiery and emotionally charged relationship soon shows signs of buckling when Erik’s film career begins to blossom, unfortunately synchronising with Paul’s escalating dependency on drugs – culminating in a melting pot of despair and heartache that only becomes heightened by these acts of compulsion and addiction.
Sachs’ delicately fashioned romance is clearly heavily influenced by some kind of haunting memory form his own past. Filmed through a wash of sulphuric tones and grainy 16mm stock the film is shot with a sense of reminiscence that adds a beautifully poetic ambience to this intimate drama. Through this striking aesthetic approach, the duel addictions of drugs and love combine to create an aching chronicle of a doomed relationship that throbs with the juxtaposed atmosphere of inherent sexuality and paralysing emotional despair – a cruel waltz of seduction and unfaithfulness handsomely sound tracked by Arthur Russell’s brooding cello and melancholic, sombre vocals.
Less about the usual stigmas associated with gay romances, Keep the Lights On is a tale of a derailed relationship that, regardless of sexual orientation, relates to all audiences. Despite perhaps never reaching the traumatic lows or dizzying highs of film’s doomed lovers, most will all have experienced in some form or another, a similarly destructive relationship. However, sadly neither of Sachs’ characters are particularly likeable, a mild hindrance considering how the film’s unhurried pace skips through time, tracking the relationship across a turbulent decade – demanding the viewer’s emotional investment throughout.
Sachs’ splintered narrative ultimately results in the film’s revolving door of suffering losing traction toward the third act, creating a fitting, yet ultimately disruptive numbness towards Erik and Paul’s tempestuous relationship. Yet, torn between the harsh realities of drug addiction and living a beautiful lie, Keep the Lights On remains an evocative and incredibly sincere portrayal of the crippling effects of dependency – whether chemical or emotional. A mournful examination of the extremes of life condensed from a ten-year period into a hauntingly swift 101 minutes of heartbreak.