Shame it didn’t take the ‘Weekend’ approach

Over a period of several years, we follow protagonist Erik, portrayed by Danish actor Thure Lindhardt (Flame & Citron, Brotherhood). A documentary filmmaker who has somewhat lost his way in life, we find him picking up men in a kind of phone roulette session that involves asking several questions before moving on to the next call or arranging imminent no-strings sex − a sort of pre-internet speed dating service. This is how Erik meets Paul (Booth), a pretty lawyer with a crack habit and a girlfriend. Their furtive encounter soon blossoms into something more, and though his girlfriend poses little threat to their love, his drug addiction and compulsion for promiscuity constantly derails their relationship.

Keep The Lights On is billed incorrectly as Thure Lindhardt’s first English-speaking lead role; that honour goes to the Danish/Canadian comedy Eddie The Sleepwalking Cannibal. It is, however, his first dramatic lead in English. Lindhardt is an established talent in his homeland, and his performance here carries the film from beginning to end. Shot on grainy 16mm, the film employs a cinema-verité style that resembles American independents like John Cassavettes, although the tone of the film itself is much more sober than that. This is closer to Brett Easton Ellis’s New York, teeming with high-earning, beautiful young men whose introspective self-concerns reflect the boredom of the elite bourgeoisie to which they belong. Similarly, this is not the New York you’ve seen in Martin Scorsese or Woody Allen movies, but the city of Whit Stillman or, more recently, Steve McQueen’s masterpiece Shame. As such, it is to Lindhart’s credit and the humanity of the script that we can identify ourselves in a relationship between this high flying crack addict and a slacker filmmaker, who we learn from his older sister (a small role for Paprika Steen), has an aversion to work that sees their daddy bail him out repeatedly.

Despite Lindhardt crucially giving the film its heart, neither his performance nor the film itself is without flaws. While it’s relatively difficult for this reviewer to judge the nuances of his Danish work, according to these English-language outings, Lindhardt is most at home in scenes of emotional extremity; we believe his breakdowns much more than his confessional or conversational scenes. Perhaps these indications of self-awareness can be attributed to his performing in English, but Lindhardt rarely seems to fully inhabit the skin of his character. It’s a niggling shame because aesthetically, he fits the part perfectly, and when a scene calls for bravery, Lindhardt is fearless.

On the telephone dating service that starts the film, one of the most pertinent compatibility tests to be established is both partners’ preference for ‘domination or passivity’. The film then details the ways in which degrees of this fundamental pre-requisite for any relationship can result in both harmony and destruction. Paul’s pre-occupation with his own needs and Erik’s dogged accommodation of them become a cycle that neither one of them is able to break. Writer/director Ira Sachs betrays his film’s autobiographical nature in the film’s meandering latter third. As such, the film feels slice-of-life truthful, but some narrative objectivity could have undoubtedly improved the film’s pacing.

There will be inevitable comparisons with recent UK indie-hit Weekend: both films put a relationship between gay men under the microscope, and both make narrative vehicles of love-making and drug-taking. Beyond that though, the similarities are superficial. Weekend is the superior film, but Keep The Lights On is far more ambitious. Weekend is a small, contained film that covers a single weekend while Lights On aims to summarise an entire relationship over the course of a decade. If it fails, it’s because it aims so high and offers too much.

Keep the Lights On (11)

Dir: Ira Sachs; US drama, 2012, 101 mins; Thure Lindhart, Zachary Booth, Marilyn Neimark, Paprika Steen
Premiered November 1
Playing at Empire Bio and
Grant Teatret


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