Film Reviews

I’d do anything for love, but I won’t do that

Keep the Lights On is a low-key, no holds-barred love story

For Erik and Paul, the question is whether freedom and love go together.

Authentically told–no melodrama, no sensationalism–this quietly searing drama examines the decade-long relationship between two bright but troubled gay men who find it difficult to compromise.

It’s New York City, l998. Eric, in his late 20s, is a documentary filmmaker addicted to phone sex. We see briefly some of his hook-ups, one of which leads, remarkably, to a promising relationship. His new partner, Paul, is a lawyer for a publishing company; his addiction is more troubling–he likes crack cocaine, disturbing his artsy and smart middle-class friends. As the lawyer’s habit intensifies it affects the newish couple’s attempt to establish true stability in a self-indulgent culture, gay and straight. Both want to have it all–and don’t seem to realize that coupledom doesn’t work that way. And the temptations of relative affluence are legion.

Our central character, Erik, a Nordic émigré, continues to work on his film (one of those New Yorkish indies about an eccentric), but his addictions–chiefly as a self-absorbed artiste-type–are perhaps equally, quietly as destructive as his boyfriend’s crack indulgence.

When Erik returns after winning a prize at the Berlin film fest, he finds Paul has gone on a bender. An intervention takes place and, later, Paul leaves the city for a bout of rehabilitation, and then returns, everyone around him hopeful. (This synopsis covers several years.) Tension in the couple’s life, together and sometimes apart, increases–resulting in some of the best dialogue in years, indie or studio. (Director Ira Sachs is a real writer.)

Sex in the film is graphic but not sensational, and the milieu in which it evolves is authentically rendered, no exploitation here at all. The couple begins to see that perhaps Love is not all. (The movie does convince us that the two do love each other.)

Anyone who has been in a long-term but off-putting relationship will recognize the painfulness of stratagem after stratagem which somehow prolongs the two men’s bond but does not “solve” the central problems. Everything ends in the same old place, and desperation seems to set in. Repetition seems as destructive as overt conflict–and as potentially deadening. The two men’s arguments reveal a streak of emotional immaturity in both, not an uncommon element in love relationships.

In storytelling, repetition can also be destructive, and this movie does not grow thematically or dramatically. We might yearn for an ending illustrating “personal growth,” à la phony studio films, but our doubt looms large in the last fourth of the well-done movie.

We’ve all seen relationships stumble and falter. We’ve all hoped, as the two men’s friends do, that things will “work out.”

This is not a movie that kids us; it shows us not only what is possible but what is probable. It’s worth seeing, this movie, but it’s dependent upon a smart, seasoned audience, who can appreciate a movie about reality. Is love enough?