‘Keep the Lights On” is set in three different years. None of them is 1991. But that’s a year in which this movie, which was directed and co-written by Ira Sachs, seems like it was made and released. It has the grainy, washed-out look of almost every independent film released in the early 1990s. It tells the story of a filmmaker named Erik (Thure Lindhardt), who’s in a relationship with a preppy New York lawyer named Paul (Zachary Booth), which means “Keep the Lights On” also shares homosexuality as the subject of a significant number of that same generation of movie. But while Paul has a shameful secret, the secret is not that he’s gay, because Sachs, mercifully, wants to advance the conversation beyond the closet. It’s that Paul’s in an even more consuming relationship with crack-cocaine. And someday a movie will advance us beyond that.
Until then, we have Erik’s dilemma. He loves Paul. Paul loves drugs. The drugs love ruin. Beginning in the late 1990s, the movie patiently watches over the course of a decade as Erik goes on with his life with Paul and, for a stretch, without him. It avoids high drama. It avoids high style, and where Paul’s addiction is concerned, it even avoids the high. What concerns Sachs and his co-writer, Mauricio Zacharias, has more to do with conjuring and maintaining an air of authenticity around this love and the eras of its vicissitudes. It’s also a movie about New York and the stories this city can tell. Sachs also made “Forty Shades of Blue” in which a Russian woman struggles to thrive in a relationship with an alcoholic American record producer. Erik is a Dane, so “Keep the Lights On” is another tale of a European and American in a difficult bind.
Sachs begins the movie — his fourth — with Erik holding a cordless telephone with one hand while the other searches for a way to produce pleasure. The year is 1998, the occasion is pre-Internet phone sex, the genre is period piece. There’s a lot of sex in this movie — real, intense, passionate sex; the kind you can rarely get two putative straight actors to perform — and a lot of it involves a landline and time when hot intercourse involved the least hot language: “Oh yeah. . . . A dominant top. . . . How about you?”
That first scene, like most of what follows, unfolds in clean naturalism. Before Paul, Erik is between relationships and existing on a diet of random hookups and procrastination from a documentary about the obscure photographer and filmmaker Avery Willard. He and his older sister (Paprika Steen) live on family money. He lives in a nice apartment in Chelsea. She appears to live in such opulence that even the sandwiches look like they bank in the Caymans. Paul has a boyishness that quickly seems tragic. His swept-sideways bowl haircut and the tote bag he always carries disguise the tawdriness of his habit. He looks like a make-believe innocent.
“Keep the Lights On” is sad in the familiar ways stories of addiction and romantic futility often are. What Sachs does that distinguishes his is strip away the stress and the drama and the wildness. But the movie over-blurs the line between plain and plaintive. It’s not necessarily craziness you crave, it’s inflection; it’s need, if not from the characters then from the filmmaking.
Sachs has based this movie on something he went through as a younger man. He’s only 46, and I wonder whether he’s still too close to the truth to go further than a movie that says, “This happened to me.” “Keep the Lights On” does fit well in that bygone era of small, personal, independent American moviemaking. But I also thought the overwhelming flamboyance of the young Canadian director Xavier Dolan and the pointed socio-sexual politics of England’s Andrew Haigh, whose romance, “Weekend,” will endure as a vivid demonstration of how to express the many ways in which gay politics can be personal. Sachs might argue that he’s not going for that, for direct politics, just alluding to it by touching on the fear of AIDS and the avant-garde era of Avery Willard and the filmmaker Jack Smith.
The personal and political appear to be a church and state issue for him. His best idea to weld the two is his use of Arthur Russell’s haunted disco, acoustic puzzles, and dolorous cello on the soundtrack. Before he died in 1992 at 40, Russell recorded dozens of songs from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s and was kind of haunted in his own way. The music is beautiful and cryptic — it also appears in the superb AIDS-activism documentary “How to Survive a Plague” and it situates Sach’s movie in yet another era. It’s inspired of Sachs to lean on Russell for a kind of oblique emotional depth. But it’s possible to leave this movie mistaking Sachs’s soul for Russell’s.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.