keep the lights on

Dir. Ira Sachs
(2012, Not Rated, 101 minutes)

Keep the Lights On is a romantic drama about 10 years of a relationship that starts because of lust, continues because of love, and persists past its expiration date, I think, mostly out of habit. Erik (Thure Lindhardt) is an openly gay New York filmmaker who meets Paul (Zachary Booth) for a one-night stand. That one night repeats for many nights, which turn into months and then years.

Directed and co-written by Ira Sachs, who was inspired by a relationship of his own that followed a similar trajectory, the film’s strength is in making us understand and empathize with the decisions these two men make, even when they seem destined for heartbreak. Paul is revealed early on to be a drug user, and not long after that a drug addict. His addiction is the foremost conflict in their relationship, but it’s only part of what the film is about. Sachs is not interested in exploring drug abuse, per se, but rather explores the many facets of these two men, why they make the decisions they make, and the problems that arise as a result.

Sachs is observant without being judgmental. He does not regard his characters’ behavior as inherently good or bad, does not impose an opinion about whether they’re better off with or without each other, surprising given that this story arose from his own life. He has a clear-eyed perspective on their highs and lows, showing simultaneously that the two men have a deep and abiding love, and that, to borrow the cliché, love might not be enough.

The film covers nearly a decade in just over 100 minutes, but Sachs highlights the right moments in their lives, both significant and insignificant, to give us a full sense of their lives together: a surprise party here, an intervention there, a few petty squabbles in-between, and passionate sex scattered throughout. The few supporting characters exist mostly on the periphery, which allows the audience to more intimately engage with the central pair, and also gives us insight into why they don’t break up when it seems like they should: their worlds so revolve around each other that being unhappy together is easier than being anything apart.