Ira Sachs’ Keep The Lights On is the story of Erik (Thure Lindhardt) and Paul (Zachary Booth), and their decade long relationship whilst living and hurting together in New York City. At the core, this film demonstrates and explores the ways in which the couple live together and apart and how sex and drugs are used to devastate their relationship. Erik is a filmmaker who is intends to make a documentary about Avery Willard; an artist and gay pornographer whilst Paul is a respectable lawyer, who remains (for the first act) in the closet.
The film starts at the end of the 90’s, when both New York City and the people living there were going through moments of change and experiencing collisions and tension with each other as they reached the new Millennium. The couple meet via a phone sex line and they initially hook up (a forgotten technology, which has been replaced with app’s like Grindr); Erik as a means of letting of steam but interestingly Paul finds his strength in experimentation. As they get to know each other and spend more time together, they leave one chapter behind and start a relationship where they are open with each other and the world around them. As the time goes on though, we learn of Paul’s drug habit and how his binges start to destroy a relationship, which really wasn’t healthy for either of them in the first place.
What is so integrally interesting about the relationship between these two men is how dysfunctional someone from the outside could see they were; but the relationship stays together for so long because Erik doesn’t think he was strong enough without Paul until he realises that perhaps it was Paul that needed someone to stand up for him. Another level of emotional engagement with the story is that the story is based, partly upon the relationship of director, Ira Sachs’ and an ex of his (who previously wrote his memories, Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man). Therefore the pain of the characters in the film, is something very close to the man behind the film.
Both Lindhardt and Booth are interesting to look at. Style wise; they mirror each other whilst they are both blonde, one is wild and the other is calm and about image, one is open whilst the other is closeted, one is determined whilst the other is destructive. It is interesting to compare the characters, especially due to the intensity of their relationship over time. Both actors seems massively comfortable around each other, and with each other, but with this security means that they bring their guards time a little and at times, both performances can be seen to be a little needy or a little moany. This is quickly forgotten during the sweeter, or more intense scenes of the piece where they emotional capacity to pull in the audience and allow them to become empathetic to the characters is somewhat astounding. One scene in particular is when they are adamant they aren’t going to have sex; both characters exude a sense of naivety over the situation and allow a childish innocence to take rein.
As well as performance, something else which aids in the emotional capacity of the film is both the stunning cinematography and soundtrack; both of which work in tandem together to illicit certain emotional responses. First of all, Sachs has created this entire piece on film, something which is rare these days, when digital is faster and more reliable – this for me, was the first point at which one can see something nostalgic in the piece. By filming on film (is there another way to say that!?), the picture has a sense of unperfectness and appears a little grainy, this isn’t the projectors fault but instead an actual stylised choice. These imperfections in the picture mirror the dysfunction of the characters, and we are always being told that they aren’t right for each other, but they need to get through this period in their lives. As well as this, the colours of the film are particularly interesting, they are constantly saturated throughout, making the entire timespan feel like a very long autumn. The browns and reds are the crispest colours in the film, and stand out as important throughout. This makes the film really beautiful to look at and adds another level of emotion to the film.
As I mentioned before, the soundtrack to Keep The Lights On, is one of the most stunning, powerful and emotive I have heard all year. Not only does the soundtrack compliment the film, adding to moments when the audience is already hooked or telling the audience to illicit certain emotions; but rather the soundtrack becomes an important entity all to itself within the film. Provided by the estate of Arthur Russell, the soundtrack becomes another way to engage with the story, on an emotional level, according to Sachs and I can honestly say that I agree with him. From lyrics, to voice, to rhythms and even to the names of the songs; Russell’s music (I hope) can span generations of people across the world. It has only been in the past few years that Russell’s (who died of AIDS in 1992) music has come to light and that people have taken notice, but by using it throughout Keep The Lights On, Sachs has taken an important step in proving that music is sometimes as important as visuals.
Finally, the narrative; looking at two men in a decade long relationship – there are moments when the story looks at the gay lifestyle and I hope that many LGBT groups will respond to the representations positively, because the film is thoughtful and responsive but there are other moments in the film where it simply doesn’t matter that it’s two men. Everyone will go through hurt and heartbreak in their life, it’s just par for the course, and therefore nearly everyone can understand some of the emotions in the film, from needing to be wanted all the way to wanting someone. They are damaged characters, who come through the other end but at severe costs to themselves. Keep The Lights On is an emotionally charged and heart-breakingly beautiful film. One of the best films of 2012.
Keep The Lights On will be playing on the 16th (VUE) and 17th (Screen On The Green).
Follow Ollie on Twitter @olliecharles