A fictional retelling of a boy’s own story, Ira Sachs’ Keep The Lights On charts a nine-year relationship from love’s first highs to its bitterest lows.
The Isle Of Joy by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
New York, New York – the city that doesn’t sleep. And a wondrous toy, just made for a girl and boy. Or in the case of Ira Sachs’ Keep The Lights On, two boys. The stunning Berlin Teddy winner though doesn’t need the big band bravado of Frank Sinatra or Ella Fitzgerald. Instead, it’s love in a minor, if no lesser, key. And it’s the haunting strings and vocals of Arthur Russell that permeate Keep The Lights On. New Yorker, gay and avant-garde composer, Russell died of AIDS in 1992, but only recently came to prominence, virtually unknown during his lifetime – a tragedy echoed in Ira Sachs’ film, the unheard music man and the unloved lover, inhabiting the same Manhattan milieu. And while the rest of New York charges up and down Fifth Avenue, Keep The Lights On provides a glimpse into the private, hidden spaces where Erik’s relationship with Paul lives, withers and fades. It’s a film that realises the bleak reality of love, its spineless forgivings and undignified endurance, and yet still believes. And as it plunges the highs and the bitter depths of love, Ira Sachs’ devastating love-in-the-city relationship drama shows us all how to Keep The Lights On.
The film opens with a montage of nubile young men, canvases of nudes sprawled over sofas or wrestling naked. The paintings are intended to be homoerotic, but cut together in quick succession, the effect is entirely different – a glut of bodies which simultaneously reveals the variety of experience, be it gay or otherwise, and the randomness of love while conjuring up an image of gay art for Sachs to destroy. Erik’s opening dialogue is particularly apt, calling would-be hook-ups with the same gravelly drawled telephone patter, “Hey, what’s up?” in search of a love that’s quick and within the Manhattan postcode. And for this brief prologue men, in all their plurality, are the object. Until Erik finds Paul that is.
Keep The Lights On isn’t a film for conformist romantics. The love that emerges between Erik and Paul is a real love besieged by infidelity, addiction and ennui. It’s a love that knows from the get-go it’s not going to be easy, as Paul hesitates to arrange a second meet with Erik because of his girlfriend. But Erik’s sweetness – thanking Paul for having him, and Paul’s leap into the gay unknown keep these delicate flames burning. Paul is a preppy and well-paid lawyer, Erik a wannabe filmmaker. And while there are autobiographic resonances from Sachs’ own relationship with Bill Clegg, the punishment doled out by his straight-talking sister (Paprika Steen at her most gloriously brutal) puts paid to any directorial vanity. Despite her slurs that his previous documentary was paid for by daddy and the lure of job security at the Public Broadcast Service, Erik follows his dreams, piecing together a documentary on Avery Willard, filmmaker and pornographer, and another avant-garde gay New Yorker.
The halcyon days of love are fleeting though, and while Paul and Erik smoke rock together (it is the late ’90s) and run into ex-girlfriends at art galleries, cracks begin to appear – crack cocaine, the spectre of AIDS and jealousy-provoking absence. Despite the best wills in the world and couples therapy, Erik finds himself covering for Paul to best friend Claire, papering over the cracks of his boyfriend’s all-night disappearances. Drugs make for particularly sour sex, and while Erik’s upstate working on his film, they light upon each other on a telephone hook-up line, stumbling ever further apart. Eventually, all their books and pictures sold to pay for drugs, they separate, ground zero reached when Erik stays in Paul’s hotel room to watch him take drugs and sleep with another man. It’s a tender, heartbreaking and irreversible moment, a fictional testimony to the painful and depthless sacrifices of love.
The purgatory of a relationship in its sickly death throes forms the backbone of Keep The Lights On, as Erik and Paul pick at old scars, hesitating over dinner between moving back in and breaking up, or finding themselves naked again together. Their dying relationship is tormented by an excruciating nostalgia with all its familiar, longed-for smells and helpless smiles. It’s never quite revealed why Paul and Erik can’t make it, but perhaps that’s just the inexplicable nature of love, with all its dumb conflicts and hideous mistimings.
Nevertheless, aided by Mauricio Zacharias, Sachs provides a brilliant script, evoking with razor-sharp precision the everyday tragedy of a broken heart and the reality of gay experience in darkly funny and revealing rejoinders like, “I’ve been hiding crucial events of my life since I was 13 years old.” Thure Lindhardt and Zachary Booth both bring an extraordinary realism and crushing beauty to the film, but it’s the glorious vision of Thimios Bakatakis’ camera-eye that breathes light into this dark Manhattan masterpiece. A masterclass in living with pain, Keep The Lights On illuminates both the private world of domestic gay life behind closed Chelsea doors and the dark recesses of a relationship in freefall. It’s honest and brutal, but with enough vibrancy to turn this New York love story into an isle of joy.
Keep The Lights On is released on 2nd November 2012 in the UK