Pop Culture at its Best

Sundance 2012: ‘Keep the Lights On’, a thorough look at the complexities of a long term relationship

Keep The Lights On

Directed by Ira Sachs

Written by Ira Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias

2012, USA

Director and writer Ira Sachs puts his soul into Keep the Lights On, a deeply personal but fictionalized remembrance of his own relationships, thoughts and journals. There is joy, anguish, desperation and devotion, components of any true to life love story- that the romance portrayed just happens to concern a long-term gay relationship isn’t a surprise. It is however a rarity for any love story to be handled so earnestly.

Beginning in New York City during the late ‘90s and spanning a decade- Lights is deliberately slow paced, taking it’s time developing and unraveling the passion before us. It’s clear from the start that Danish filmmaker Erik (Thure Lindhardt of Flame and Citron) is a stand-in for Sachs. Erik is a rising documentarian who hooks up with Paul (Zachary Booth from TV’s Damages) via a singles chat line. What should have been a one night stand develops into a strong affinity and then something neither of them can let go. Erik becomes the more fully developed and sympathetic partner as the narrative goes on but at times Paul seems as though he’s part and parcel of Erik. People often become so intertwined and synonymous that it is difficult to decipher one without the other. It would be wonderful to know Paul more than we do but the point seems to be that it’s hard to see who you and the other person are when you’re that deep in a relationship. So it is that our characters find it difficult to know themselves and the toxicity of Erik and Paul is not a sudden revelation but one that happens incrementally, with many detours back into happiness along the way.

Some might find it’s exhaustive approach to relationships a little too frank but Sachs doesn’t gloss over how people stray and how susceptible to weaknesses they can become if they aren’t realizing their dreams or their partners aren’t living up to expectations. The sex is graphic and in being so comfortable, Erik and Paul don’t hold back on telling each other off. Erik’s stalling in finishing his documentary about artist Avery Willard triggers Paul’s anger and anxiousness about his own sense of self. In depth, the bonds of love distort under career pressure, routines and ego- the details of which take time and are presented by Sachs in stretches of introspection. This is not a meet cute tale that ends when they finally realize they love each other. It is a slow build that shows that relationships deteriorate the individual as much as or more than they can elevate feelings of worth.

The story structure is repetitive, oftentimes going in circles- much like a couple’s argument in which neither one will give in. It remains fascinating even though tiring and quietly cognizant observations make up the majority of our time. How long should we hold onto someone? The cinematography is owed to Thimios Bakatakis who worked on the disturbing, claustrophobic Dogtooth. Within an urban environment this time, Bakatakis shows a couple isolated amongst millions. Erik paces the grey and blue melancholic streets in loops, trying to make sense of it all. NYC does not foster closeness here but only fuels an endless cycle of brief encounters with others who keep moving on to the next best thing. It is hard for our couple to make a lasting connection outside of each other and so it is spellbinding that these two can’t set each other free, back into the lonely abyss. Erik and Paul don’t remain the same people. They change with time and don’t fit together as easily as time wears on. We want to see them together but we’d rather see Erik happy. Paul is a drug addict but the film also delves into other types of dependency. In dealing honestly with becoming addicted and dependent on one another, Keep the Lights On confronts what most of us don’t want to face: happiness can’t be found in possessing another. It needs to exist separately in the individual and take more cues from giving to others than expecting rewards.

– Lane Scarberry

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