Director Ira Sachs follow 2005’s Forty Shades of Blue and 2007’s Married Life with Keep the Lights On (2012), a tale of a deeply fractured relationship between two gay men in New York, played out over the course of a decade. The story focuses on Erik (Thure Lindhardt), a Danish filmmaker living in New York, and Zachary Booth’s lawyer Paul, who hides a developing drug addiction. After embarking on a fiery and passionate relationship, cracks soon begin to show, with Paul frequently disappearing for days at at time without alerting Erik to his whereabouts. Subsequently, the pair’s relationship spirals out of control.
While there are certainly commendable elements to be found in Keep the Lights On, the overriding sense that prevails is one of casual indifference. Yes, the performances of its leading men are absolutely spot on, and Sachs’s visual sensibilities certainly reflect the air of tragedy and sadness surrounding the film’s central themes. However, with a film that relies so heavily on one’s investment in its characters and a deep emotional engagement with their plight, Sachs’ latest rarely succeeds.
At no point in proceedings does the audience ever really find out anything of significance about Erik or Paul, making a connection with either extremely difficult. Clearly the sympathies of the viewer are heavily directed towards Erik, who regularly has to deal with the erratic and selfish behaviour of his partner. Yet, such sympathy can only withstand so much, with Paul displaying scant signs of any redeeming features. Elsewhere, Paul’s disappearances are never really explored. And, while this may be an attempt from Sachs to introduce an air of mystery to proceedings and place us in Erik’s shoes, his absence serves only to frustrate the audience and offer us nothing in the way of being able to engage with his situation.
In essence, Keep the Lights On does its very best to paint a picture of a tragic romance, but what emerges is little more than a hazy sketch of two men of whom we find out very little. A greater insight into Paul’s activities may well have injected a bit of pace or life into the plot, as well as providing the audience with a degree of understanding as to why Erik is so hopelessly unable to separate from him.
Many will disagree with this, given that it is the mystery that often makes a romance all the more engrossing, but when asking your audience to commit to a film centralised so heavily around a relationship, one really requires a more in depth view, not just a passing glimpse.