Five minutes into this film, there is a shot of Erik ( Thure Lindhardt) striding through night-time New York – a confident, scruffy Nordic blonde in a petrol blue jacket – that is full of raw anticipation and instantly iconic. It’s 1998, and he’s on his way to a booty call with preppy lawyer Paul (Zachary Booth) that he’s set up through a phone-sex line. When they meet, there’s an obvious physical attraction which lasts until the morning when Paul warns: “I’ve got a girlfriend – so don’t get your hopes up”. And so begins their tumultuous love story. The girlfriend isn’t the only pitfall, as the story continues, the initial buzz and excitement of the couple getting it together is cut through by Paul’s crack addiction.
Keep the Lights On (Sachs’ fifth feature film) is based on, or perhaps, inspired by his real life relationship with literary agent Bill Clegg who’s demons were openly confronted in his debut novel, Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man.
Once we discover the depth of Paul’s addiction the focus of the film is given over to Erik’s role as supportive, long suffering boyfriend, which becomes a bit indulgent. Also, we are presented with this one-sided account of Paul, of the way he comes across and behaves, but it doesn’t really explain his motivations. So, even though there are some pretty brutal moments, it’s difficult to feel much sympathy for Erik, largely because his character is too stylized; he never fully loses control (apart from an odd moment when he hits himself with a fruit bowl), but mostly because the film simply doesn’t unpick the relationship enough. The element of semi-autobiography is almost a red herring as it doesn’t add to the complexity of the lm, and that’s puzzling because it really should do. It feels more like Sachs is trying to close a chapter of his own life – to memorialize it in celluloid – and in doing so has allowed it to be slightly one sided.
The subtext running throughout is that the key to sexual chemistry is friction and unsuitability, but that, on its own, will not sustain a relationship. What’s most interesting about the film is the way we see the characters evolve over ten years; Erik, who starts out as uninhibited and wild, realizes, through half-heartedly attempting to recreate what he had with Paul with other guys (and watching the man he genuinely loves deteriorate), that there’s more to life, and Sachs makes an excellent job of describing how soulless those encounters can be. Instead, when Erik puts the hours in he wins an award for his documentary on Avery Willard then plans to start a family with his best (female) friend. Paul, meanwhile, goes to (glossed over) rehab.
Keep the Lights On really is like a visually beautiful memoir of a relationship, and on that level makes for a sensitive, if glacial, retelling of ten years of trial error and guring it all out. Played out against an Arthur Russell soundtrack it’s a love letter to a moment in time but also in a way, to New York City – depicted as a place that is eternally magical, vibrant, exciting and full of opportunities.