Tuesday, September 4, 2012

KEEP THE LIGHTS ON: Decade-long tale of love and addiction is Ira Sachs' best work

Don't, as one reviewer quoted on the poster for this movie recommends, "forget Brokeback Mountain" in order to remember KEEP THE LIGHTS ON -- the new and really pretty thrilling love/addiction/commitment-and-the-lack-of-it story from one of our more interesting filmmakers, Ira Sachs. Mr Sachs, shown below, has been making movies for nearly 20 years. While four of his output of eight are best known, each seeming initially quite different from the others, they are connected by being love stories in which the characters have great difficulty owning up to that love.

In The Delta (1996), a young gay man can't own up to who and what he is, let alone connect with another who might make a very good partner. Forty Shades of Blue (2005) gives Rip Torn one of his better later roles, as it tells the tale of young Russian woman living in Memphis with Torn's aging rocker, and what happens when the man's estranged son comes to visit. Married Life (2007), Sach's most commercial (not to mention enjoyable) movie, boats a starry quartet of a cast as it tells, via a surprisingly light and sophisticated touch, of love's promise and pain.

Each of Sach's films has proven better that the one that preceded it -- smarter, more skillful, polished and professional in getting across his points while reaching a broader audience. Now comes this writer/director's newest, which takes us full circle back to his first success. Keep the Lights On, like The Delta, is a gay love story, and it is told, once again, in an indirect, subdued and subtle style.

Yet what a huge difference there is between the two films, and how much more successful is Lights than Delta in keeping us hooked and attentive by making the events shown so much more specific in their details, and consequently the two characters much less amorphous and infinitely more "present" and real.

Sachs' film spans nearly a decade of time as the relationship between Erik (Thure Lindhardt, above, of Flame and Citron and Brotherhood) and Paul (Zachary Booth, below, whom we've only seen in smallish film roles up to now) slowly blooms, fades, blooms again, as the two men feint and parry, all the while held hostage by one's addiction to drugs and the other's to casual sex.  The movie is evidently based on the real-life relationship the director had with his lover -- which the latter wrote about in his own tell-all autobiography published some time back.  This film, I suppose you could say, is Sachs' version of the events. TrustMovies knew nothing about any of this when he sat down to watch the movie, and it absolutely does not matter, I think, whether you already "know" this story or not -- because Keep the Lights On works perfectly well on its own terms.

Sachs has, over the years, honed his narrative skills and coupled these to his early gift for naturalism, which has only grown stronger from movie to movie. Like, The Delta, Lights is suggestive, but in a much stronger manner without ever being ham-fisted. The filmmaker gives both men their due. You care for them as individuals, and you care for their relationship, even if you have grave doubts about it -- and them.

If the film has a weakness, it would be found in the subsidiary characters, none of whom are presented with enough specificity or meaning to rate the time they are given. We have to see some of these people, of course, otherwise it would seem our two guys are living in a vacuum (which at times they almost appear to be doing). And since these characters are played by very good actors -- Julianne Nicholson, Paprika Steen and Souleymane Sy Savane, I don't think their lack of clarity or force is the performers' fault. In any case, it's that relationship we want to get back to, and when we're away from it, the movie seems to meander.

It would be lovely to talk about this film without even mentioning that the relationship is a gay one. But of course the fact that it is rules out reaching around 80 percent of the male American audience (maybe only 70 percent, worldwide).  In terms of "relationship" movies, this film is every bit as good as last year's Weekend, and because this particular relationship lasts much longer than that of  that Friday/Saturday/Sunday movie, it also may seem deeper and more profound. Do see it.

Keep the Lights On, from Music Box Films and running 101 minutes, opens this Friday, September 7 -- in New York City at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, the Clearview Chelsea and the Angelika Film Center; and in the Los Angeles area at the Sundance Sunset 5 and Laemmle's Playhouse 7. To see all currently scheduled playdates, with cities and theaters, click here and then click on the word THEATERS below the main photo.

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