Keep the Lights On, written by Ira Sachs (who also directs) and Mauricio Zacharias, tells the harsh, yet poignant and truthful story of how two people are ravaged by addiction and how it forces them to reassess certain aspects of their lives and attitudes. Reinforced by the fact it’s based on Sachs’ own personal experience from a previous relationship, the film is remarkable in its authenticity as these two people come together through love (their initial months together are filled with amusement, happiness and intimacy) only to be pulled apart by something as abhorrently wicked and barbaric as addiction.
The narrative, which spans almost a decade in time, often lends itself to numerous inconsistencies – too much time is covered with too little focus and comprehension (title cards are too heavily relied upon to communicate how much time has passed) and the characters often prove difficult to empathise with – but most of these issues are condoned by the outstanding character study tendered. The script remains impartial from start to finish, enabling the film to provide an intense, prejudice-free examination into the effects Paul’s ever-deepening dependency has on each character individually and the wedge it has driven between them as a couple.
Their problems are only intensified further by their own shifting personalities. Erik suffers the horrible crisis of being deemed dispensable by the man who he loves deeply and who supposedly loves him back, while Paul is lead further astray by his desire for independence and Erik’s overbearing reliance on the couple’s relationship. It’s all commendably executed by Sachs, Zacharias and cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis, with a few scenes in particular – Erik’s confrontation with Paul while he’s having sex with a prostitute is heartbreaking in its candidness – doing wonders to expose the changes in their needs and desires.
Keep the Lights On is tied together through the subtle, yet coarse and bleak tone Sachs opts for in his direction, Bakatakis’ suggesting framing and lighting techniques and a toned down score provided by musician Arthur Russell. It’s the performances though, delivered assuredly – and nakedly – by Lindhardt and Booth, that award the film its greatest achievement and elevate the hesitant and open-ended nature of the narrative into something much more captivating. In that respect, Keep the Lights On is an intense, haunting and gut-wrenchingly honest character drama about how addiction can tear love apart. It’s a real treasure in contemporary queer cinema.