Directed by Ira Sachs
Written by Ira Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias
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 telephone 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 to take 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, are entrenched in 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 the aforesaid, 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 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