Starring Thure Lindhardt, Zachary Booth. Written by Ira Sachs, Mauricio Zacharias. Directed by Ira Sachs. STC. 101 min. Opens Oct. 12 at TIFF Bell Lightbox.
A relationship drama that’s distinguished by its quiet, unfussy precision and its rare degree of intimacy, Keep the Lights On shows how hearts sometimes get broken in ways that aren’t nearly as flashy as the windswept moments of grand melodrama that movies typically deploy. Instead, it’s the thousand tiny blows that wear love down until the only option is to put it out of its misery, even if that just brings more misery. Yet for all the pain contained in Ira Sachs’ fourth feature—which marks a welcome return to form for the American filmmaker after 2007’s middling Married Life—it’s got too much intelligence and vitality to come off as a downer.
Danish actor Thure Lindhardt stars as Erik, a documentary filmmaker in New York who makes do with casual encounters until he meets Paul (Zachary Booth), a publishing-industry lawyer whose hunger for love matches his own. The pleasure they exhibit in their early days of coupledom gives way to more troubling feelings as the extent of Paul’s drug problem becomes obvious. Yet Sachs takes great pains to illustrate how much Erik’s own issues also play into the pair’s increasingly toxic dynamic over the course of the decade they spend together.
Though the couple’s relationship is scrutinized from many angles, the director is able to convey a wider experience of gay life in New York via references to Erik’s research for a doc on real-life photographer Avery Willard and the soundtrack’s prominent use of the hazily gorgeous songs of Arthur Russell, a musician whose genre-hopping work went underappreciated until long after he died of AIDS in 1992. And while Keep the Lights On’s explicit love scenes may threaten to limit its potential audience, the film is remarkable not because of any queer themes or content but because of how acutely it portrays the shared hopes, desires, and frailties that are fundamental to any romantic relationship that’s strong enough to last past breakfast.