"The collapse of sexual taboos has caused some trouble for love, or at least for love stories. That sex often precedes emotional intimacy — or proceeds without it — is a fact of life that movies, with their deep and longstanding investment in romance, especially have a hard time dealing with.... You can’t really fault Hollywood, an empire built on fantasies of heterosexual happiness, for simplifying such complex matters. But there is also a need for stories that address the complex entanglements of love and sex honestly, without sentiment or cynicism and with the appropriate mixture of humor, sympathy and erotic heat."
That was A.O. Scott, writing about Andrew Haigh's excellent 2011 film Weekend. Weekend described the cautious, weekend-long courtship of two British men who slept together, then realized they actually liked each other; it's an absolutely great, charming, bittersweet little movie (it's on Netflix Instant, if you haven't seen it).
Ira Sachs' new Keep the Lights On, opening in Portland this weekend at Living Room Theater, is of a piece with Weekend in ways both superficial and profound. Like Weekend, it's about a gay relationship that begins with a casual hookup—in 1998, two men meet on a phone sex party line in New York City—and unfolds to contain much more. But while Weekend's timeframe is just that, Keep the Lights On chronicles ten years of the relationship between Erik, a gap-toothed filmmaker/dilettante, and his crack-addicted lawyer boyfriend, Paul. Keep the Lights On follows their on-again, off-again relationship, as Paul's increasingly destructive behavior lands him in and out of rehab, and Erik struggles to reconcile his love for his boyfriend with the fact that his boyfriend... well, is a crack addict.
Keep the Lights On succeeds, as Weekend did, in capturing the ambiguities of adult relationships without sacrificing watchability, and the questions it poses are less about "will they break up or won't they?" and more to do with what makes a relationship worth having. Notably, most of Keep the Lights On unfolds interstitially—this is not a film of major fights and breakups, of dramatic breakdowns and tearful reconciliation, but of all the stuff in between: sex, dinner, walks in the park with friends. The actor who plays Erik—Danish Thure Lindhardt—is remarkably good, and his lived-in performance grounds a script that could've felt slight in different hands.
It's also worth nothing that the score is drawn from the work of the late cellist Arthur Russell, whom I wasn't particularly familiar with before. His voice sounds like if Antony Hegarty, Nick Drake, and a scary robot had a baby. I can't stop listening, and I can't think of a better recent use of music in a film.
Keep the Lights On opens this weekend at the Living Room Theaters. Go see it!