Documentary filmmaker Erik (Thure Lindhardt) and closeted lawyer Paul (Zachary Booth) meet through a casual encounter, but soon find a deeper connection and become a couple. Individually and together, they are risk takers and fueled by drugs and sex.

Gay love affair goes up in smoke.

MELBOURNE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: The Danish actor Thure Lindhardt, best known for his roles in Flame + Citron and Brotherhood, has a concisely complex face that readily indicates pleasure or unhappiness, but when he laughs you can see a gap between his front teeth that adds a boyish gentleness. In his fine lead performance In Keep the Lights On, he brings all those qualities to bear as a gay man whose long term relationship with a white collar crack addict moves from the throes of passion to the pain of loss and back again, and in a film that sometimes sweeps through both the years and sentiment it is Lindhardt who elevates proceedings.

the focus of the film is not so much Erik and Paul’s relationship as Erik’s reaction to the peaks and troughs

Filmmaker Ira Sachs last directed 2007’s Married Life, a glossy 1940s crime comedy with Pierce Brosnan and Rachel McAdams, but this is a plainly autobiographical work. Lindhardt’s Erik is a German documentary maker living in New York, and while he is a stand-in for Sachs, Zachary Booth’s lawyer with a weakness for smoking crack cocaine, Paul, is based on Sachs’ former partner, literary agent Bill Clegg (who deals with some of the same material in his memoir Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man).

By virtue of Sachs’ outlook – he also co-wrote the movie with Mauricio Zacharias – the focus of the film is not so much Erik and Paul’s relationship as Erik’s reaction to the peaks and troughs. The character is hardly saintly, beginning the film on a trawl through a 1998 gay phone chat line looking for one afternoon stand prospects, and he adopts a persona for each voice and subsequent assignation, only relenting when his mutual attraction to the preppy Paul takes hold.

There’s a certain distance between the movie and Paul, but it’s only slowly that his disdain and quiet anger fill it. Keep the Lights On doesn’t have a great deal that is new to say about addiction, but in a certain way that is Sachs’ point – every addict is different, every addict will hurt the ones they love. Paul’s income lets him keep up the façade at work, but at home he disappears on nightly binges, which distresses Erik but also encourages him to give in to his own desires and trawl for casual hook-ups.

In their initial encounters, Paul smokes crack as part of his foreplay with Erik, and when he blows smoke into his lover’s mouth, it’s not so much an act of shared communion as a bid for dominance, while the dynamic between the two, examined every year or two over a decade, moves in small, jagged leaps. The bustle of New York City – and the lifestyle it might inspire – is sharply captured, but Erik’s family and close friends don’t always come into clear definition. The picture’s hope is that moments of passion and trips to rehab, the brief arguments and harsh blowouts – Erik finds Paul during one week-long binge but it only results in him witnessing acts of degradation he feels more sharply than Paul – will accumulate into something resonant by the final scene.

The idea is that even when it ends you’ll know that everything in Keep the Lights On will stay in painful definition, and thanks to Thure Lindhardt’s deft and genuine portrayal of a man not sure if love is freedom or restraint, that’s what happens.


1 hour 41 min