There's such a world of difference between Ira Sachs's second and third features—Forty Shades of Blue is as beautifully delicate as Married Life is self-consciously smarmy—that I approached his new movie with anxious trepidation. I'm happy to report that Keep the Lights On is a major achievement that puts Sachs back where Forty Shades of Blue left him: as a supreme observer of the perils of shared intimacy. The paradox at the heart of his style seems to be that lyricism doesn't make him foggy-eyed; the grainy haze he bathes his scenes in doesn't blur the edges of the masterfully rendered personalities of his characters.
The new film shares some thematic concerns with Forty Shades of Blue, again focusing on a foreign-born character living in the U.S. and undergoing a severely confusing relationship, in which strong sexual connection goes hand in hand with self-destruction. But where Forty Shades of Blue told a story of marital infidelity, Keep the Lights On explores the ways in which one lover's drug abuse steadily undermines a couple's mutual trust.
The lovers this time are an openly gay documentary filmmaker, Erik (Thure Lindhardt), and a (mostly) closeted lawyer, Paul (Zachary Booth, willowy and open-faced in equal measure). They meet for a casual hook-up in 1998 New York City, as Paul is still in a straight relationship, and strike up a connection that will take them on a long journey of on-and-off bliss and hurt, as Paul proves incapable of shaking off his drug addiction, even as Erik's self-sacrifice grows larger and larger.
Lindhardt, who remains a stunningly warm, gap-toothed presence throughout, is amazingly adroit in portraying his character's willful goofiness (serving as Erik's way of easing into the world around him), which goes hand in hand with his creative intelligence and doesn't preclude genuine heartache. The sex scenes between him and Booth are refreshingly varied in tone and often eschew the facile urge-release dynamics that characterize so much on-screen sex in both gay and straight cinema. It's very rare that a viewer gets a sense of movie characters' erotic bonds morphing over the years while remaining basically unyielding, and this is exactly what's happening in Keep the Lights On, thus rendering its beautifully evocative title even more relevant.
Sachs's way of cutting is highly idiosyncratic; he often willfully confuses the viewer by seamless breaches of continuity, as in the early scene of Erik's casual sex encounter with a comically narcissistic body builder, which is cut right before the two men go to bed, only to be followed by a tender post-coital scene involving Eric and Paul's second, previously unannounced meeting. In this striking transition, Sachs plays with the notion of interchangeability of sexual partners that at first seemed central to Erik's experience, and at the same time suggests a permanent erotic bond being born out of the titillating vortex of sex-phone hookups.
The relatively wide time scope of the story, which covers roughly a decade and involves the repeated crises of Erik and Paul's relationship, as well as the elaborate process of Erik working on his documentary about gay NYC artist Avery Willard, counts as the sharpest departure from a small-scale canvas of Forty Shades of Blue. It testifies to Sachs's achievement that he manages to give us a feeling of an organic development of his characters' sense of themselves over a period of time, all the while constructing a scene-to-scene sense of evanescent intimacy that seems all but timeless.
As he did in Forty Shades of Blue, so this time Sachs boldly foregrounds an achingly sensuous music soundtrack (courtesy of Arthur Russell), thus transforming the film into a ballad of sorts. Its central theme is Erik's persistence in latching on to his dream of sharing a life with Paul, no matter what. The latter's fateful warning, uttered to Erik after their very first encounter (“Don't get your hopes up”) stands not only in sharp contrast to the equally prescriptive, if infinitely more hopeful, title of the movie—but also defines the threat of loneliness Erik will devote a good 10 years of his life to challenge.
The Sundance Film Festival runs from January 19—29.