Delicately tracing the troubled nine-year bond between two men living in New York, Ira Sachs mines his own memories to sensitive, melancholy if somewhat muted effect in “Keep the Lights On.” The writer-director’s first same-sex relationship drama since 1997’s “The Delta” plays out episodes of sexual awakening, substance abuse and romantic indecision against a luminous, beautifully textured canvas. Yet by exclusively favoring and even flattering one partner’s p.o.v., the experience feels a touch emotionally lopsided, withholding the gut impact necessary for a gay-themed film this nakedly personal to cross over beyond the festival circuit.
In recounting the beginning, middle and end of his own long-term relationship, Sachs constructed a screenplay from an enormous backlog of personal emails, diaries and memorabilia. His stand-in is Erik (Thure Lindhardt), a Danish expat in his 30s trying to complete a documentary on the legacy of pioneering queer filmmaker-photographer Avery Willard. Erik is introduced cruising phone-sex chatlines in a lonely Gotham apartment circa 1998, a scene that lightly foreshadows his wariness about commitment in all aspects of life, work and relationships included.
He thus feels happily dazed to find himself involved in more than just a quick fling with younger lawyer Paul (Zachary Booth), still closeted at the time of their passionate first coupling. A quick leap ahead to 2000 finds the honeymoon phase long over, as the familiarity that comes with live-in coupledom has begun to breed contempt. Preoccupied with his career, and often emotionally as well as physically distant, Paul scorns Erik’s more laid-back lifestyle and touchy-feely way of relating. Yet these differences are nothing compared with the matter of Paul’s increasingly reckless crack habit, which gets bad enough to warrant an intervention and rehab.
And so the film goes, propelled forward a few years at a time to encounter the two at different stages of their relationship — sometimes together, sometimes apart, their status generally dictated by the ups and downs along Paul’s road to recovery. Recurring characters from the couple’s support network, like Erik’s tough-love older sister (an underused Paprika Steen) and loyal friend Claire (Julianne Nicholson), keep the proceedings from feeling too claustrophobic.
As in his past movies, which include “Forty Shades of Blue” and “Married Life,” Sachs’ thrust is entirely relational, and he avoids the expected historical and political markers of the past decade almost entirely. There are no cutaways to TV sets and, rather remarkably for a New York-centric film, not even a fleeting mention of 9/11. Time is measured in Erik’s relief at finding out he’s HIV-negative at a time when the AIDS crisis loomed larger than it does now; in the slow progress on his Willard documentary; in Erik and Paul’s regular visits to a Chelsea art gallery or an idyllic woodland retreat; and in joyous holiday celebrations with friends and family.
Sachs’ autobiographical memory piece likewise has no time for discussions of gay identity politics of the sort found in 2011’s British indie “Weekend”; in shielding Erik and Paul from such topical burden, the director is asserting his right to present them in his own way. Frequently bathing the men’s bodies in a golden, soft-edged light warmly captured by Thimios Bakatakis’ Super 16 photography, the helmer folds his characters in what feels like a tenderly protective embrace.
All the more perplexing, then, that the other man in this picture never fully comes into his own as a richly developed character. While Paul certainly conveys his own outlook, often in the form of tetchy, too on-the-nose dialogue (“Some of us have jobs, you know,” he tells Erik more than once), he remains a curious blank and, given the hell he puts Erik through, a not especially sympathetic one. Even the story’s emotional low point following the 2004 debut of Erik’s doc, after which the patient helmer suffers with Paul through a massive drug binge, highlights the former’s devastation to the near-exclusion of the latter’s agony. The result may well reflect a certain ambivalence on Sachs’ part, but the impression it leaves is that of a personal experience to which viewers simply haven’t been given complete access.
A slim, handsome blond who speaks in a charmingly accented, high-pitched voice, the excellent Lindhardt (“Flame and Citron”) makes Erik a distinctive enough figure that he doesn’t invite easy identification, although his desire to offer his lover the impossible, a chance at salvation, registers quite movingly. Despite his role’s problematic conception, Booth gives a fine, nicely shaded performance as Paul.
“Keep the Lights On” shares a certain timeless quality with much of Sachs’ other work, aided by subtle period touches in Amy Williams’ low-budget production design and a wide-ranging soundtrack and score, the latter drawn from the compositions of Arthur Russell. Footage from some of Willard’s original short pics add greatly to the film’s formal and thematic richness.