Keep the Lights On is such a quiet, raw, and intimate film that at times you worry that maybe you shouldn’t be watching it. Ira Sachs’s haunting, melancholy relationship drama charts the multi-year love affair between Erik (Thure Lindhardt), a Danish filmmaker, and Paul (Zachary Booth), a literary agent, but it’s not so much about the rise and fall of a romance as it is about the slow, steady disintegration of one. As such, it’s actively painful to watch: As it accumulates telling scenes and details with a kind of obsessive stock-taking, the movie asks you to pay close attention — then dares you to look.
There’s something deceptively complex about the film’s structure, even though the story is told in ruthlessly linear fashion. The first scene, set in 1998, has Erik sitting at his bed cruising for phone sex. He connects with Paul, and that very night the two meet (and get down to business) in real life. Then Paul tells Erik, “I actually have a girlfriend, so don’t get your hopes up.” Erik seems disappointed, but somewhat unfazed; he’s probably heard this before. But the relationship develops, and soon enough they’re moving in together. (To its credit, the film makes very little of one early scene where they run into Paul’s girlfriend at an art gallery; this isn’t a movie about being closeted, thank Christ.) We know early on that there’s trouble brewing, when Paul introduces Erik to his crack habit, but it seems to be part and parcel of the kind of abandon that this character likes to indulge. It’s telling that the boho filmmaker type is the one who’s trying to build a stable life for himself, while the dapper, corporate type is the one who needs to just lose his mind every now and then.
The years march on, as Paul’s addictions and his careless use and abuse of Erik’s love escalate in almost absurdist ways. But the movie doesn’t dither around or slow down to focus on big moments. The narrative isn’t fluid, but it is relentless: Scenes don’t flow organically from one to the other. Rather, they feel like isolated moments (some admittedly bigger than others) that flash by before we’re on to the next one. Sachs often places his camera uncomfortably close to his characters, as if to focus on a detail while doing away with context. Somewhere along the way, we might realize that the whole movie is basically an extended, unspoken flashback. You don’t need to know that the film is semi-autobiographical to understand that we’re essentially watching a series of memories. (Sachs based the story on his turbulent, decade-long relationship with literary agent Bill Clegg, author of the memoir Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man.)
That autobiographical quality could have been a flaw (who cares about someone else’s dirty laundry?) but in this case it actually lends the film even more power. It’s an obsessive movie, but Sachs seems to understand the limits of obsession: His images are gorgeous but grainy, like they’ve been conjured up out of someone’s mind and might vanish at any moment. Lindhardt’s remarkable presence helps, too: He’s somehow both otherworldly and awkward at the same time, with eyes that dart around nervously even when things seem to be going well. Watching him, you sense that Erik has been an outsider his whole life, that his struggles with Paul haven’t subsumed his character so much as revealed parts of it. It’s a relationship that brings out the worst in him, and we’ve all known those. Thus, Keep the Lights On goes from being a memory trip for its director to being a confessional for its audience. It’s sad, yet strangely liberating.