Spanning ten years through the late Nineties Keep The Lights On by Ira Sachs (Forty shades of blue, Married life) chronicles a doomed relationship spawned from a one-night-stand.
In a dingy New York bedroom Erik trolls the phone sex lines looking for a score. His efforts lead him to a man named Paul in Chelsea, who’s looking for the same. Soon thereafter, it is revealed that our real antagonist is Paul, a straight and square young man by day and a gay crack addict by night. A relationship between Paul and Erik, who is strikingly both dependent and co-dependent, ensues.
Fast forward to a few years and we see them now settled in their shared apartment, seemingly well-adjusted and living the American dream. Because of his partner’s drug addiction still going unchecked Erik does an intervention with friends, most of whom are not much seen outside of this scene. Paul goes to rehab, makes a recovery and then falls off the wagon. You get the gist of that subplot.
Unfortunately, we rarely get a glimpse of the tangible relationship between the two men. The sex is certainly there, but love and all those little bits and pieces that make us care about someone are mere extras whose scenes were cut or sometimes intermixed after the damage was done.
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Plot devices which work so well in other films only do so here because we actually care about the characters, once the film takes that turn. It doesn’t help things that our two lovers are always looking for other partners when they aren’t together, like the beautiful painter Igor whom Erik meets in a nightclub and then doesn’t see again for several years.
I was pulling more for Igor to, at the very least, get laid, than for any kind of resolution between Erik and Paul.
This is director Ira Sach’s first film since 2007’s Married Life, about a man who conspires to kill his wife to spare her from the pain of a nasty divorce after he falls in love with a much younger woman. That film (set in the Fifties) was ahead of its time (it landed on the eve of the Mad Men hysteria) and presented a far more effective approach to the subject of love.
Keep The Lights On forages for substance in the shallow end haplessly floating along until its feet don’t touch the bottom anymore, to then scurry back to safer waters.