Erik Rothman (Thure Lindhardt, "Flame and Citron") is a German documentary filmmaker living in New York City. One night he goes looking for sex on the phone and connects with the handsome if standoffish Paul Lucy (Zachary Booth, TV's 'Damages'), but Erik is hooked and the two move in and out of each other's lives for a decade as Erik tries to get Paul to kick promiscuity and crack cocaine in "Keep the Lights On."
In his Sundance winner "Forty Shades of Blue," cowriter (with Mauricio Zacharias, " Madame Satã")/director Ira Sachs looked at the loneliness of a foreigner on the powerless end of a relationship with an American. This time, its personal as Sachs gives fictional cover to his own experience in a decade long affair. As such, the film belongs to his point of view (although, jarringly, one scene and one scene only features Paul's) and while Lindhardt paints a sympathetic character, Booth's Paul remains a surface cypher, a good-looking guy whose elusiveness with Erik translates to blankness on screen.
The film is frustrating, as it has been well crafted technically. Cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis ("Dogtooth") uses practicals to paint with golden light in intimate scenes and Sachs celebrates the music of Arthur Russell throughout. Lindhardt conveys the inability to give up on a romantic obsession and subplots about the rest of his life - his deep friendship with producer Claire (Julianne Nicholson, "Kinsey," TV's 'Law and Order') and her desire to have a baby, with him if necessary - and his work on a documentary on underground gay artist Avery Willard - feel natural. But Booth's Paul, whose early Beatles haircut does not change throughout the course of a decade, is a hollow center. He's all about sex, smoking crack, leaving for work and disappearing altogether. His addiction is more front and center than the relationship itself. The two only really seem to connect over a pricey photograph Erik covets of a woman missing the subway in blurry close-up (a metaphor one presumes).
The film features some nice performances in very small roles. "Goodbye Solo's" Souleymane Sy Savane is a warm presence as Claire's boyfriend who wants no more children and newcomer Miguel del Toro makes a mark as Igor, another emigre Erik hooks up with during Paul's absence. One wonders why Danish actress Paprika Steen ("The Celebration," "Applause") signed on for the role of Erik's sister as she offers little to the film but art house recognizability.
"Keep the Lights On" is one of those films that engages as one watches, but leaves little to grasp onto upon reflection. Last year Andrew Haigh packed more joy and heartbreak into one "Weekend" than Sachs has mustered in ten years.
Robin also gives "Keep the Lights On" a B-.
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