A restrained, distant affair
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, September 21, 2012
“Keep the Lights On,” written and directed by Ira Sachs, has the frisson of being inspired by Sachs’s real life -- specifically his relationship with literary agent Bill Clegg, best known for “Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man,” the memoir of his crack and vodka addiction.
The life of a high-flying agent and his shameful, self-destructive secret feels like an obvious movie adaptation -- “Permanent Midnight” with books, right? But here Sachs turns the tables, telling the story from his point of view as a dedicated lover, concerned partner and, finally, helpless bystander while the person he loves most in the world insists on destroying himself.
Such is the stuff of high drama, but “Keep the Lights On” maintains an oddly distant air. Thure Lindhardt plays Sachs’s alter ego, Erik, a Danish filmmaker who, as the film opens in 1998, is making random calls on a phone-sex line. When he meets an editor named Paul (Zachary Booth), the latter tells him that he has a girlfriend and not to get his hopes up. But the two men wind up together, over the next several years coping with Paul’s well-camouflaged addiction to drugs and Erik’s not-so-well-camouflaged addiction to Paul.
Sachs, who wrote the film with Mauricio Zacharias, evinces a canny eye for New York’s West Village and Chelsea, where most of the film transpires, and he gets extra credit for using the evocative music of the late Arthur Russell, who died of AIDS in 1992. But “Keep the Lights On” never lets viewers fully inside Erik and Paul’s world, a reticence that isn’t helped by the actors’ fey, restrained-to-a-fault performances.
That and a frustratingly episodic structure make what might have been a raw and inspiring portrait of commitment and boundaries a surprisingly uninvolving, arms-length enterprise. “Keep the Lights On” lets go just when it should be holding you tighter.
Contains adult themes, graphic sexuality, nudity, profanity and drug use. In Danish and English with English subtitles.