There is a bittersweet, and very meta, moment in Keep the Lights On where Erik (Thure Lindhart) has just won a special award at the Berlin Film Festival for his documentary on gay artist Avery Willard and he decides to call his boyfriend Paul (Zachary Booth) who stayed home in New York. We hear the phone ringing on the other side and then we see the device itself, its high pitched sound filling the emptiness of the apartment they share. Paul seems to be missing again, and this is sad to Erik because it means he might’ve gone on yet another drug binge.
Keep the Lights On is a touching, raw look at addiction, which can take a myriad of forms, including drugs and love. When the film starts we meet Paul as a night owl, prowling the mid-‘90s world of anonymous phone sex lines. “Hello” after “hello”, he starts conversations with men who fail to capture his attention, until he listens to a soft spoken man on the other side who isn’t only horny, but also willing to meet. He rushes to his apartment and this is when we first set eyes on Paul. We learn little from him except that he’s a lawyer with a girlfriend. After engaging in “meaningless” sex, Erik leaves but not without letting Paul know that they will meet again.
Without any bells and whistles (this movie isn’t about love being found, but love being lost) in the next scene we hear Erik talking to his best friend Claire (a wonderful, radiant Julianne Nicholson) talk about how much he likes this new guy. We never see them get together, but then they just are and the film takes a look at ten years of their lives as they struggle with trying to deal with Paul’s omnipresent drug addiction.
Even if Paul’s addiction seems to be the biggest dramatic arc in the film, writer/director Ira Sachs sees beyond the limitations that this might present and instead turns his movie into a painful confession. Sachs has revealed that the screenplay was in fact based on his own relationship with Bill Clegg (who himself wrote a novel called Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man), and anyone watching the film might be able to perceive how several situations ache with truthful resonance.
It is perhaps based on this very concept that Sachs goes a step further and turns Eric into a version of himself that not only has to deal with loving Paul and hating his addiction, but also a version of himself that has to examine his own contributions to the relationship. We are reminded throughout the film that Erick is a documentary filmmaker and an expat (he’s from Denmark) which in a way reveals how Sachs dealt with the situation in real life. He was indeed a foreigner for whom the world of addiction was completely unknown and he seems to have seeked refuge in his art, considering some of his most renowned works take place during the time in which he was with Clegg.
Is Sachs then alluding to the fact that he, too, escaped reality? If so, what is the movie saying about the role of art in our lives? The aforementioned documentary on Willard that Eric is working on, is praised by those around him for uncovering a lost icon, but is the film then saying that powerful art comes at a price? Few times have we seen a contemporary filmmaker wonder if his life’s work is worth it, which is why Keep the Lights On might be one of the most important American movies in recent years.
Extras on the DVD version include the wonderful In Search of Avery Willard, a truly great extra given that the snippets we see of it in the movie, actually make us very curious about Willard’s work and life. The 20 minute documentary is a great companion piece to the movie and also a great short film by itself (is someone making a feature length on Willard? Because they should). A bruising commentary by Sachs reveals new light on scenes where we might otherwise think little is happening.
Also included is a making-of featurette which is shot in a very “artsy” mode (not merely interviews and cast and crew praising each other for once!). The DVD is rounded up with six minutes of deleted scenes (with commentary) and the audition tapes for both Booth and Lindhart. While Booth’s aloof beauty makes him an obvious choice for the ethereal, problematic Paul, it’s a delight watching Lindhart (who truly gave one of the best performances of the year in this movie) get into character. His boyish charm and larger than life presence make him a true joy to watch.