Keep the Lights On, a sensitive dramatization of director Ira Sachs’ past relationship with literary agent Bill Clegg, is many things: a throbbing tale of lust and love, an aching chronicle of a relationship’s fall, a heartbreaking account of addiction. It also signals the birth of Thure Lindhardt as a major film star. The Danish actor, best known for his performance as the gay neo-Nazi in Nicolo Donato’s Brotherhood, reaches into his pants at the start of film, stroking himself while trolling for a fuck on a phone-sex line. Six-and-a-half inches, uncut, is how he sells himself; years later, in a moment of crisis, not knowing where his boyfriend, Paul (Zachary Booth), has gone to for a weekend that clearly feels to him like a lifetime, Erik will misrepresent the size of his cock to potential one-night stands on another sex line, and Lindhardt, whose awkwardness is never that of a straight actor playing gay, makes haunting another of the film’s fixations: the importance of being earnest.
The film’s actors enliven opaque characterizations with startling imagination. When Erik is chastised by his friend, Karen (Parika Stern), for not using his father’s money to bankroll his documentary projects, his frustration with her expresses his discomfort with nepotism, a view consistent with his problem with the gay community’s narcissism, best exemplified in two separate hookups he has with the same Chelsea meathead. In the second, Lindhardt conveys, with a polite grin and nervous body language, the quiet hell of wanting sexual gratification at the expense of compromising one’s values. What makes Erik so interesting a character, besides how Lindhardt so delicately and thoughtfully colors him, is his steadfast sense of morality; he sees a class divide in both matters of work and sex, and he’s at his most poignant when struggling to stay true to who he is, as opposed to what others can make him or would like him to be.
Erik and Paul’s romance, a dance of seduction and tears and heartache that spans, in fits and starts, a decade, isn’t unique, though it’s one that has been rarely expressed on screen with such emotional clarity. After Paul, riding in a cab, sees Erik talking to a guy on the street, they get into fight, through which we get a strong sense of the couple’s unique personality traits—and where their relationship is no doubt headed—in the way Erik innocently pleads his case to Paul and tries to pull him from the couch and back onto their bed, insisting against anger. And in a scene that’s almost too painful to have to remember, Erik allows Paul to defile their relationship by allowing him to sexually degrade himself with a hustler. High on meth, Paul doesn’t seem to even know who Erik is and that he’s in the other room, though when he calls out to him so he can hold his hand while the stranger fucks him, you get the strange, almost sick feeling of being forced to watch an assisted suicide—two lovers sadly abiding by some predetermined agreement on how to finally kill their relationship.
Keep the Lights On isn’t remarkable for how it looks (Thimios Bakataki’s camerawork, perhaps expectedly, is rather antiseptic), and the way Sachs incorporates Erik’s work into the story, sometimes self-referentially (as in a scene where Erik and Paul are at an art gallery and Erik asks Paul to introduce him to his former girlfriend), is alternately easy and heavy-handed. And one character, Igor (Miguel del Toro), seemingly based on Sach’s husband Boris Torres, a painter whose artwork is collaged and offered as the film’s opening credits sequence, is a too-simple representation of there being, for Erik, other fish in the sea—and kind ones too.
More than just a relationship drama of striking specificity, this is a naked confession about addiction—not so much about the using, but using as a weapon and how the user exploits the love and guilt of others to not get better. And the essence of this study of addiction is distilled into one detail: Erik’s obsession with the photograph of a woman who appears haunted in the face, almost as if she’s seen a ghost, though really her agonized reaction resulted from just having missed a train. Paul will strike some two-faced poses throughout Keep the Lights On, one during a dinner in which Erik, in front of a roomful of people, applauds Paul for seeking help for his drug problem. Paul smiles, though you sense he’s more embarrassed than charmed and may use this moment against his lover. Erik doesn’t see the truth behind the mask, not because he’s naïve, but for the same reason the photograph of the woman transfixes him: Like Paul, it tells a beautiful lie.