Film Review: Keep the Lights On

Long before the eighth fraught reunion between this self-serious drama’s ultimately mismatched (and uninteresting) gay lovers, you may find yourself tuning out.

Keep the Lights On covers the decade-long, on-and-off relationship between Erik (Thure Lindhardt), a Danish filmmaker living in New York, and Paul (Zachary Booth), a successful literary lawyer. Sounds nice and cozy, this meeting of two white gupsters, doesn’t it? Hold on: Erik is a sexual obsessive, especially given to lengthy bouts of phone action, while Paul is, to put it bluntly, a crack-head. Erik has his obsession more under control than Paul, however, who is prone to mysterious and distressing disappearances, which drive Erik up the wall.

Writer-director Ira Sachs has fashioned a highly autobiographical film, inspired by his own real-life romance with Bill Clegg, a William Morris agent who wrote the notorious memoir Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man. That may well be, but the fact remains that not a single frame of this film rings true. Paul initially tells Erik that he is with a woman and therefore will be inaccessible. But in the very next scene, the two are as happy as the proverbial two peas, with no explanation as to what happened to Paul’s lady. The lovers share an affinity for heavily narcissistic pouting, but we never see them really enjoying each other’s company, which would explain why they continue to stick it out for ten very long (especially to the viewer) years.

There’s an irritating side plot involving Erik’s gal pal (Julianne Nicholson), who’s bent on having a child and, being strictly a loser when it comes to straight men, begs Erik to be her baby daddy. If Nicholson thought she was escaping from “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” to something less dramatically turgid, she was wrong.

When we first meet him, Erik is working on a documentary about gay photographer and activist Avery Willard. Appearing in the doc’s “footage” is the influential porn-camp artist and true living treasure James Bidgood, who in a few short interview scenes delivers more juicy life than anyone else here.

Those others include the two leads, whose lack of magnetism renders the film dead in the water from the get-go. They both mumble more than Marlon Brando ever did and, along with a thick Danish accent, Lindhardt has a particularly unattractive voice with a range from flat to squawky. Booth works hard to convey a kind of beautiful, doomed Byronesque quality, but winds up more Jackie Collins, with an eerily unvarying haircut through the years.

Arthur Baker’s whiny, vocalized soundtrack music comes in at key moments and seems not only unnecessary, but audience-pandering and downright intrusive. The only person to come out of the movie with any real honor is cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis. His interiors in particular have a warm, painterly beauty to them, and it is just a crying shame that it wasn’t used for something better than this inferior gay soap opera.