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Keep the Lights On | Review

Dying of the light: Sachs’ Latest a Quiet Heartbreak of Growing Apart

Keep the Lights On Ira Sachs ReviewMultifaceted director Ira Sachs returns with Keep the Lights On, his first feature since 2007, and is arguably his most poignant and strongest work yet. Sachs hasn’t explored gay characters since his 1996 film, The Delta, and this latest work is purportedly based, at least in part, on happenings from his own life and relationship. A melancholy look at love and loneliness in the gay world, Sachs focuses on a ten year relationship between two men in New York City and the result is a refreshing and honest depiction rarely seen in cinema.

Beginning in 1998, we’re introduced to Erik (a wonderfully captivating Thure Lindhardt) a Danish documentary filmmaker living in New York, cruising on a phone sex line. Upon meeting Paul, a closeted lawyer with a girlfriend, it’s obvious that the two are attracted to each other, but as Paul says, “Don’t get your hopes up.” We observe Erik for a while, and in conversations with his sister (Paprika Steen), we learn that he is currently working on a documentary about a forgotten NYC gay artist, Avery Willard, and it is his second film.

In between other random hookups, we see Paul and Erik meet again and then begin to date. Before long, it’s apparent that Paul has a drug problem, preferring to smoke crack before having sex. Fast forward three years, and after numerous problems with drugs and infidelity, Erik has an intervention for Paul, who agrees to go to rehab. After his rehabilitation, Erik’s documentary is met with great acclaim, but Paul cannot seem to stay clean. Erik has an incredibly strong network of friends, men and women, gay and straight, but no one can figure out why he chooses to stick by Paul. After Paul suddenly disappears without telling anyone where he went, the two drift apart and back together, but realize that they must decide upon an ultimatum: stay together or stay away.

Keep the Lights On is hardly a melodramatic film, but instead a vibrant, frank, and moving portrayal about two men in love that don’t know how to let each other go. The nuances of their relationship are clearly coming from an artist that understands his subject, no matter what parts are true or fabricated. Certainly this is not a film only meant for gay people, but the fact that it is an honest depiction of what modern gay relationships can look like, those turned off or oblivious to relationships not modeled after monogamous, heternormative ideals may not be able to fully comprehend the importance of such a film. Fans of the excellent 2011 film Weekend should definitely seek this title out, but Sachs’ film is even more of a revelation, a no holds barred, unromantic depiction of an unraveling love. Not a hundred reviews could give justice to the importance and beauty of a film like Keep the Lights On, a throwback to the way queer cinema was starting to head in the 1990’s, but perhaps hasn’t quite reached. Just as Erik recuperates a forgotten gay artist for his documentary, Ira Sachs has recuperated and documented a modern gay existence, and a realistic one, at last.

Reviewed on January 23 at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival – US DRAMATIC COMPETITION Programme.
101 Min.

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2021: France (Bruno Dumont), Passing (Rebecca Hall) and Nightmare Alley (Guillermo Del Toro). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.


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