Keep the Lights On is about a destructive and addictive relationship, and that relationship I’m referring to is not Paul’s drug addiction. Lights is about Erik’s addiction to Paul and their relationship together and how that plays with Paul’s own addictions. Directed by Ira Sachs, his film plays as his side of the story with regards to Bill Clegg’s 2010 memoir Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man.
In Lights, Thure Lindhardt plays Erik, a Danish documentarian working on a film about artist Avery Willard. After sleeping with Paul (Zachary Booth) through a phone hook-up line (this is 1998, after all, and Grindr doesn’t exist), they begin a long and complex relationship together. Erik grows quickly concerned with Paul’s excessive drug use and drinking, but his love for Paul—or his seeming addiction to just being around him—keeps him from confiding in his friends about his concerns for Paul’s welfare until it is too late.
For those who’ve read Portrait, you know what to expect. Paul does rehab, relapses, and repeats. Erik never gives up hope that Paul will recover, despite Paul’s lack of enthusiasm for seeking help. That is when Erik’s passion for Paul grows weary and unhealthy. When his friends have their own mini-intervention for Erik’s relationship with Paul, one friend says what everyone is thinking: “You’re never going to save him.” Just like an addict, Erik ignores this line of reasoning and continues his destructive relationship (including watching Paul imbibe alcohol and drugs while having sex with a hustler).
This is a dark film about addiction. It is hard to sit through it and see Erik doing so many destructive things to himself. Even his best friend Claire (played by the beautifully freckly Julianne Nicholson) is deeply disappointed by how secretive Erik has been about Paul. Slowly, the film itself becomes unbearable. Too much time is spent watching Erik waste time trying to help the incurable Paul. You know the film can’t end until their relationship does; yet Erik continues to cling to Paul for almost a decade.
Thure Lindhardt does a heartbreaking job playing Erik. He brings compassion and subtlety to his role that makes everything feel all that more real. Zachary Booth is a perfect cast for Paul. He’s young, handsome, and known for his steely emotional façade (see also: Damages). Booth captures all the internal turmoil as well. He’s scarily believable as a drug addict, as well—tapping into their erratic and destructive behaviors.
Keep the Lights On definitely feels like a piece that Ira Sachs had to make. It’s a very personal film, and it feels almost untoward to be allowed to view it. Also, for someone as obsessed with intertexuality as I am, it is hard not to get sucked into the film. A viewing of this should definitely be accompanied by a reading of Clegg’s Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man (and his follow-up memoir Ninety Days). With those materials you will have a full look at this destructive relationship.
- ‘Keep the Lights On’ review: well told (sfgate.com)
- ‘Keep the Lights On’ Trailer – A Gay Couple Wrestles with Drug Addiction in Acclaimed Sundance Drama (slashfilm.com)
- film: Ira Sachs Directs ‘Keep the Lights On’ (nytimes.com)