In the past two years between Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz, Drake Doremus’ Like Crazy, Xavier Dolan’s Laurence Anyways, and Andrew Haigh’s Weekend, we seem to have entered into a golden age of unromantic romances. Regardless of the sexual orientation of the people involved (Hetero relationships in the two former films and trans and queer in the latter two, respectively), these films all strived to show romantic relationships with almost all of the romance taken out of them. They are films about the strain brought on by love rather than its healing power.
Joining the ranks of those films and becoming one of the best of this new wave is Ira Sachs’ sprawling gay romance Keep the Lights On, a film of unquestionable power and rawness despite not really rewriting the book on this type of anti-romance. In his first film since 2007’s Married Life, Sachs returns with a semi-autobiographical look back on one of his own relationships with a pair of leads that are willing to make such a fraught romance come to life with great character work.
Thure Lindhardt – seen last month on area screens in a very different role in the underrated Eddie: The Sleepwalking Cannibal – stars as Eric, a thirty-something Danish filmmaker living in New York City who starts a multi-year on again/off again relationship with a man he met through a sex line in 1998. Almost immediately Eric is smitten with Paul (Zachary Booth), a publishing industry lawyer with a debilitating crack addiction. Turning a blind eye to it at first, Eric begins to grow more and more concerned with every passing binge that finds Paul coming back home days later and not even bothering to explain where he’s been or what he’s really done.
Sachs has crafted a multilayered character in his on-screen surrogate, and the performance from Lindhardt should give the actor his most noteworthy performance to date. Eric isn’t a completely likable fellow from the start. He’s a bit of a spoonfed type who seems to have been babied for quite a long time. He’s somewhat naive, a little arrogant, and sometimes prone to childish outbursts when he doesn’t stand why he’s being scolded for being needy all the time.
It’s not that Eric smothers Paul in trying to get him help, though. If anything it’s made known that Eric has previously tucked tail and run from hardship in a previous relationship. It’s this newfound feeling of love and infatuation that leaves him confused in terms of how to react to someone he finds himself constantly drawn to. The psychology behind Eric’s thought process is fascinating and Lindhart plays him so respectfully even when it comes to the character’s most damning traits.
Booth has the unenviable and even harder task of making an impression as an absentee lover who has to constantly appear successful on the surface while being almost completely unreliable in reality. On his character, the film could have easily turned into the well worn ground of such addiction romances as When a Man Loves a Woman or even possibly a Bret Easton Ellis morality tale, but Booth knows his character has to make an impression as someone worth loving while he’s actually around. The fact that Eric puts up with him isn’t the only thread Sachs and co-writer Maurico Zacharias have put into play here. Despite a botched intervention that Paul doesn’t handle so well, he still has to deal with the fact that for all Eric tries to help, he’s also incredibly clingy and flighty.
There comes a point where quite obviously the confused Eric has to step up to become the more responsible of the two, and the sequence when this transition happens certainly isn’t easy to watch as he’s forced to watch someone he cares very deeply for do something almost unspeakable to feed his addiction. Part of the brilliance of Sachs’ screenplay, however, is that he makes this relationship even more complicated by reversing their roles yet again later in the film, thusly making a universally understandable metaphorical correlation between drug addition and the endorphin fuelled rush of unquestioning love.
This push and pull between opposing views of rational behaviour in a relationship also manifests itself in Sachs’ direction quite eloquently. Almost every time Eric and Paul are in a room together and with the exception of moments of intimacy and sex, the actors are put as far away from each other in the frame as possible, making it look like there’s almost a gravitational void in the centre of every room threatening to push each other away and out of the other’s person’s life. It doesn’t even matter if the two are arguing or talking calmly, there’s always a certain degree of space between them.
While the emotions in play are pitch perfect, there are a couple of small issues with the film. The film perfectly nails the struggle of the main relationship, but there are several half baked asides with minor characters that aren’t all that interesting and don’t really go anywhere. The soundtrack (heavy on the Arthur Russell) occasionally makes the film come off as just another American independent cinema exercise. Also, possibly most disappointingly, everything really does wrap up about fifteen minutes before the actual conclusion.
But at the point where the movie makes its logical ending it lucks into the most perfect bit of dialogue in the film, when one turns to the other and says “We made quite the melodrama, you and I.” In reality they both did and they didn’t because while their traumas might be felt as being melodramatic in the moment, Sachs has adopted the modern sense of intimacy as the same films I listed off the top. There are films that aren’t histrionic or designed to swing for the fences with grandstanding or long winded speeches. These are films designed to look back at something broken with a wistful eye towards the future as if they were a series of photographs looking back on the past with equal parts grief and relief. In that respect, Sachs has crafted a great entry into this emerging cinematic trend.