They love each other, and they like to be with each other, but they admit in the end that their relationship does not work. “Keep the Lights On” tells an bittersweet romance tale about two gay men struggling with the problems in their relationship, but you will find the universal aspects from their best times and their worst times once you pass by the specifics in their story. Like any straight or gay couples, they are just two people attracted to each other, and they bitterly accept their failure as a couple like some of us did.
The movie observes on how the relationship between Erik(Thure Lindhardt) and Paul(Zachary Booth) is started, continued, shaken, broken, and finished during their 9 years. In 1998, Erik was a Danish documentary filmmaker struggling to advance his career in New York. He managed to make his documentaries thanks to his rich parents’ financial support, but he has not attracted significant attentions yet. When he appears in a radio program, he notices that its DJ is not so enthusiastic about his recent documentary while merely asking formal questions to him.
Anyway, he tries to move on with his next project(it is about an underground artist Avery Willard), and he also searches for a new lover through random encounters. Sometimes he uses phone sex service, and sometimes he has casual encounters with other gay men. One of them is particularly funny, for he seems to be more interested in how his own body looks than having a sex with Erik.
And then Erik gets involved with Paul, a lawyer who works in some publishing company, and their relationship becomes less casual as they spend more time with each other. They go to the museum together. They enjoy nice afternoon at the Central Park. They also meet Erik’s other friends, including Dan(Justin Reinsilber), Claire(Julianne Nicholson) and her husband Alassane (Souléymane Sy Savané).
But, as the time goes by, their romance is hindered by the problems which were apparent from the beginning. Besides that Paul usually shows distant attitude to Erik in spite of Erik’s patient love, Paul has addiction problem with drugs, and that hurts Erik a lot. At first, it looks like a minor character flaw, but Paul’s addiction problem starts to seriously affect the relationship between them. Sometimes Paul goes out and does not return to home for more than a day, and, when he returns, he never talks about where he has been. While the others around them begin to sense the strains in their relationship, Erik finally try to deal with the problem, and he gets some help from others to persuade Erik to check himself in the rehabilitation center, but the things keep getting complicated between them.
The movie feels biased at times because we never see the story in Paul’s viewpoint throughout the film. While we can understand why Erik keeps trying to maintain their relationship despite his frustration with Paul, Paul is usually masked by his private problems he is not willing to discuss openly with his partner. It looks like he does care about Erik, but, driven by his addiction, he is sometimes quite cruel to him; at one moment, he has an intercourse with a male prostitute as Erik remains at a loss outside the room.
What drives Paul such self-destructive behaviors hurtful to not only himself but also his partner? The director/co-writer Ira Sachs does not seem to have an answer for that, and that is not so surprising, considering that the movie is a partially autobiographical story inspired by Sachs’ experience with his former lover. I heard that those impressive pictures shown during the main title scene were actually drawn by Sachs’ current lover Boris Torres, and I was a little amused by the scene where Erik comes across a guy who is probably Torres’ fictional counterpart.
Despite the constant problems between them, Erik and Paul somehow continued their troubled relationship for several years. Even if they are not happy about their relationship, it takes some time for two people to be separated because they still have feelings about each other, and the movie observes the scenes from their private life with the considerable degrees of sensitivity and honesty. There are many unhappy moments, but there are also happy moments. They are angry about each other at one time, but they soon make reconciliation in their bed, and that pattern goes on and on till some point.
This could have been very monotonous due to inherent repetition, but we are constantly engaged thanks to the good performances by two lead actors, and Thure Lindhardt and Zachary Booth have a nice chemistry between them. While mainly focusing on Erik and Paul, the movie also looks at the supporting characters from time to time, and they add small nice details to the main story. In case of Claire, we get a scene where she has a brief but honest talk with Erik as his straight girlfriend, so we get the reversal of a familiar movie convention most of us are familiar with.
Like “Weekend”(2011), another sensitive drama on a bittersweet homosexual relationship, “Keep the Lights On” looks at the characters and their intimate drama with no particular need to make statement on its subject. Erik and Paul do not hide their sexuality from others, and the others see no problem with that. After the critical success of the movies such as “Brokeback Mountain”(2005) or “The Kids Are All Right”(2010), it looks like homosexuality now becomes a mere ordinary subject for stories, but I guess that’s not a bad thing as long as there are good stories to tell. How nice it is to see such a progress like that.