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'Keep The Lights On': Nuanced Take On Doomed Love

Sep 6, 2012
Originally published on September 7, 2012 5:18 pm

Hot-weather Hollywood blockbusters have now cooled off, so the cineplex will be a quieter place for the next few months. But there can be intensity even in intimate films, as evidenced by the relationship drama Keep the Lights On.

Erik is a promising filmmaker whose "promise" is beginning to wear a little thin when we first encounter him talking on the phone, on a hookup line for men. This commitment-free shortcut to physical intimacy says a lot about Erik's approach to life. He likes the start of things — follow-through is not his strong suit. Still, this particular hookup goes so well, he dares to hope for something more.

The man on the other end of the phone, Paul, meets up with Erik, but tells him, "I have a girlfriend ... so don't get your hopes up." Nevertheless, they fall back into bed, and into a relationship passionate enough to surprise them both. Paul's girlfriend falls by the wayside, while the men move in together — and stay together for nine years.

There is a glitch in the relationship, though. Paul does drugs — a lot of drugs. It's his "little secret," which he asks Erik to keep to himself because "people in the publishing business like to gossip."

Filmmaker Ira Sachs reportedly modeled this story on his longtime relationship with literary agent Bill Clegg, who's written his own book about struggling with addiction, so ... well, don't get your hopes up, at least about the couple on screen.

The film, though, is as sure-footed as their partnership is not — a nuanced portrait of emotional turmoil, persuasively acted, richly sensual one moment, wrenching the next, and unlike so many films centering on gay characters, not particularly concerned with things like coming out or HIV.

The film is, in fact, evocative of a place and time — Manhattan at the turn of the millennium — when two gay, urban sophisticates could manage to mess things up even though they seemingly have everything going for them: money, passion, a gay-friendly environment and friends so supportive they're almost hectoring in their love.

Given the story's origins, it's understandable that Keep the Lights On keeps its focus on Erik's growth more than on Paul's addiction. The young filmmaker-of-promise matures considerably on screen. And as for director Sachs, one might say Keep the Lights On qualifies as promise fulfilled.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

We're going to movies now with our critic, Bob Mondello. The season has passed for hot-weather Hollywood blockbusters, and theaters are starting to see more intimate fare, but just because these movies are quieter, Bob says, doesn't mean they lack intensity. His pick for this week: a relationship drama called "Keep The Lights On."

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Erik is a promising gay filmmaker whose promise is beginning to wear a little thin when we first encounter him talking on the phone, on a gay hookup line.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "KEEP THE LIGHTS ON")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As character) You into that?

(As character) Where in Chelsea are you?

MONDELLO: This commitment-free shortcut to physical intimacy says a lot about Erik's approach to life. He likes the start of things; follow-through is not his strong suit. Still, this particular hookup goes so well, he dares to hope for something more.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "KEEP THE LIGHTS ON")

THURE LINDHARDT: (As Erik) I left my phone number on a piece of paper.

ZACHARY BOOTH: (As Paul) I have a girlfriend, by the way, so don't get your hopes up.

LINDHARDT: (As Erik) That's too bad.

MONDELLO: They fall back into bed and into a relationship passionate enough to surprise them both. Paul's girlfriend falls by the wayside, they move in together and stay together for nine years.

There is a glitch in the relationship, though. Paul does drugs, a lot of drugs.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "KEEP THE LIGHTS ON")

BOOTH: (As Paul) My little secret, you can't tell anyone.

LINDHARDT: (As Erik) I won't.

BOOTH: (As Paul) Because people in the publishing business like to gossip.

LINDHARDT: (As Erik) Paul, I swear.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Filmmaker Ira Sachs reportedly modeled this story on his longtime relationship with literary agent Bill Clegg, who's written his own book about struggling with addiction, so - well, don't get your hopes up, at least about the couple on screen.

MONDELLO: The film, though, is as sure-footed as their partnership is not: a nuanced portrait of emotional turmoil, persuasively acted, richly sensual one moment, wrenching the next. And, unlike so many films centering on gay characters, not particularly concerned with things like coming out or HIV.

The film is, in fact, evocative of a place and time - Manhattan at the turn of the millennium - when two gay, urban sophisticates could manage to mess things up even though they seemingly have it all: money, passion, a gay-friendly environment and friends so supportive they're almost hectoring in their love.

Given the story's origins, it's understandable that "Keep the Lights On" keeps its focus on Erik's growth more than on Paul's addiction. The young filmmaker-of-promise matures considerably on screen. And as for director Sachs, I'd say "Keep the Lights On" qualifies as promise fulfilled. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.