Inside Out 2012: ‘Keep the Lights On’; a powder Blue Valentine

- Advertisement -

Keep the Lights On
Directed by Ira Sachs
Written by Ira Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias
USA, 2012

Keep the Lights On tells the story of Erik Rothman (Thure Lindhardt), a gay Danish documentary filmmaker living in late 90’s New York City. While not filming, Erik likes to patron the city’s phone-sex lines, soliciting no-strings-attached one-night stands with complete strangers. In one of those random encounters, he meets Paul (Zachary Booth), whom he starts a relationship with. But as the two men start building a life together, a not-so-hidden vice begins taking a heavy toll on their relationship, resulting in pain, loss, and desperation.

The most accurate way to describe Keep the Lights On and its many flaws is to compare and contrast it with Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine. In the aforementioned, the lead characters, played by Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, chronicles a relationship that also devolves into shambles.

The reason why Blue Valentine works is because it posits a genuinely tragic situation. In it, Gosling and Williams’ characters meet and fall in love in a touching, almost whimsical fashion. Their relationship blossoms organically and unimpeded by outside meddling, so when everything starts falling apart at the seams, we are left questioning why. We come to understand that it’s simply because they’ve grown apart from each other, and this brutal frankness and simplicity makes the entire affair more moving, creating a film of lasting emotional effect.

However, this is not the same with Keep the Lights On. Unlike its contemporary, Erik and Paul meet through a wanton fashion. Essentially, it’s the equivalent of a Craigslist m4m hook-up, making their connection spurious from the start. Furthermore, they bond by their mutual use of illicit narcotics, making the consequent relationship feel like it’s literally drug induced.

So when Paul’s addiction problem eventually takes a stranglehold on his relationship with Erik, the result is conflicting. By virtue of being an addict, the viewer is automatically sympathetic with his situation and, to a lesser extent, Erik’s futile attempts to save him.

But since their relationship is predicated on such a fragile foundation, it doesn’t feel like Erik’s overzealous endeavors are either believable or justified. Because the narrative unfolds over almost a decade, it is implied that the relationship through that period must be genuine, but there aren’t very many scenes where it even remotely indicates that this is true (except, of course, when they’re taking drugs).

With a partnership seemingly based on falsehoods and artificiality, the film still has the pomp to turn the story into a faux-relationship drama. Erik and Paul spend much of the film querying their conjugal breakdown and pointing out each others respective flaws when a pharmacist, let alone a marriage councilor, could tell them the root of the problem – drugs. The answer, like in Blue Valentine, is stridently simple, but instead of being quietly emphatic, it’s jarringly inane.

Because the liaison is so contrived, and because their problems are so reductively straightforward, Keep the Lights On is an enterprise that tries to sell more than it invests, and although it’s set at the turn of the 20th century, the film only makes a cursory effort to make the mise on scène era appropriate. But maybe it is, since the entire film, in summation, is so wildly farfetched.

– Justin Li

Visit the official website for Inside Out

2 Comments
  1. Simon says

    Why would the two men’s relationship be spurious just because they met on a Craiglist-style hookup? Have you never seen love blossom from a one-night-stand? What would be a more proper meeting? A debutante ball? This is how most gay men meet in the 21st century! The reviewer should go out more.

  2. Bill says

    Can this reviewer be trusted? He seems to be struggling just to construct a proper English sentence, which I take as the most obvious sign of a deficient imagination. For instance, he uses “patron” as a verb (it’s not) in paragraph 1. The second sentence of paragraph 4 is a complete catastrophe: a dangling modifier (“its” should agree with “Erik and Paul” but clearly does not) is followed by the awkwardness of “through a wanton fashion” (really? really? “in a wanton manner” would be only slightly less jarring if what he was saying wasn’t so asinine). There is another dangling modifier in paragraph 5 — unless, of course, the author means to suggest that the viewer him- or herself is an addict. “Marriage counselor” is misspelled. And any agreement between subject and pronoun in that last sentence of the penultimate paragraph is lost in a flurry of stylistically bad adjective-noun collocations. But that’s just the beginning. He doesn’t even represent the film as a film, just a storyline: no mention of the acting, no mention of the directing, no mention of production values, no mention of the soundtrack — all of which are crucial — as they tend to be in the motion picture arts — and all of which make KEEP THE LIGHTS ON a superb film.

Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published.