Time and texture add a lot of depth to the romantic drama, “Keep the Lights On,” which tracks a turbulent New York City gay relationship for a decade starting in the late 1990s.
The movie received rave reviews last year, but only limited theatrical distribution. Music Box Films released a DVD version last week and has also made the film available on most of the major download services. It’s a very impressive piece of work — perhaps the best slice-of-gay-Manhattan-life since Bill Sherwood’s “Parting Glances” back in the mid-1980s.
Director Ira Sachs has said that the story was inspired by his own long-term relationship with a drug-addicted boyfriend — almost every scene in the movie has a thoughtful, realistic quality that bears out the idea of a film made from actual experience.
We meet the protagonist, Erik (Thure Lindhart, the Danish actor who was so good in “Flame and Citron”), while he’s trying to make a phone sex connection late one night.
He eventually hooks up with Paul (Zachary Booth). After they have great sex, Paul warns Erik “not to get your hopes up” because he has a girlfriend and is just experimenting with men sexually.
Despite the warning, Erik and Paul become a couple and their problem isn’t Paul’s interest in women but in drugs. He holds down a good, high-paying job as a literary agent, but disappears for days at a time on drug binges.
Erik’s love/fixation on Paul is presented as a given. We don’t see why he puts up with such abuse from his boyfriend for so many years, but isn’t that always the way with other people’s dysfunctional relationships?
Erik has a good life of his own as a documentary filmmaker, with lots of caring friends (including a very close one, well played by Julianne Nicholson), but he can’t break his own addiction to Paul.
Lindhart projects such intelligence and compassion that we stick with Erik — just as his friends do — because he is clearly a good person trying to help his lover get out of a downward spiral.
“Keep the Lights On” carries echoes of “Days of Wine and Roses” and other classic addiction stories, but the beautifully detailed New York setting and flawed-but-decent characters give the movie its own distinctive appeal. It’s a film that deserves to find a wide audience in the home video market.