How does one walk the line between all-too straight/glossy portrayals of homosexuality that are so common post-“liberation” and still address the fact that gays do have boyfriends, relationships, typical lover spats and needs for consistent intimacy?
In Keep the Lights On, director Ira Sachs manages to get into the gritty and the pretty of a long-term gay relationship, taking us through a full seven years in the shared life of Erik and Paul. A chance one-night-stand sex date between filmmaker Erik and publishing lawyer Paul leads gradually to touching co-dependence. Before long, though, the elephant enters the room in the form of Paul’s crack problem. Love, and Erik’s struggle to deal with his partner’s addiction create a story arc offsetting Paul’s difficulties against Erik’s own personality issues – such as a tendency to indulge in slightly whiny tirades against some Paul’s more innocent behaviour (attributable in part to Danish actor Thure Lindhardt’s natural child-like qualities).
This film isn’t there to blow minds, and succeeds above all in refusing to kowtow to heterosexual expectations (“Look, Martha, the homos are just like us! Their love deserves to be reaffirmed now that I’ve seen this film”), staying sweet but keeping real in its depiction of a gay relationship. This is a love story. And the honesty lies in the extremes that mark their actions – from Paul gifting the extremely expensive painting that Erik has wanted all his life to Paul being fucked by a stranger during a crack-binge while Erik looks despondently on, holding his hand.
The film is not without faults – Erik winning a Teddy Award (the Berlinale award for gay films) is a little cheap considering that this film actually went on to win a Teddy Award, but that’s only a slight distraction from the merits of this candidly beautiful feature film.
Keep the Lights On | Directed by Ira Sachs (USA 2012) with Thure Lindhardt, Zachary Booth. Starts October 25