Film review: Keep The Lights On (18)

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IT’S 1998 and Erik (Thure Lindhardt, right) is a filmmaker with a string of failed relationships until he meets a funny, smart, sexy man on a gay chatline.

Director: Ira Sachs

Running time: 101 minutes

* * *

The attraction is immediate, although it is one of opposites. Erik is a needy Danish dilettante who lives on family money and is warned about his lack of direction. By contrast, American Paul (Zachary Booth) seems more focused and ambitious. He seems confident and polished, and holds down an important job in publishing. He also has a girlfriend and ­dabbles in drugs. Soon he drops one, but secretly holds on to the other.

Over a decade the relationship blossoms; the couple ­enjoy a good standard of living in New York, pursue their ­careers and have a relaxed ­social network that includes Erik’s older sister (Paprika Steen) and a straight best friend (Julianne Nicholson).

The movie drops in on them as the years pass, and although they are still together, there are signs that all isn’t well. There are shifty excuses, odd absences and downright lies. It’s Paul’s relationship with drugs which becomes deeper, more complicated and eventually so debilitating that he shuttles in and out of rehab. Erik is hanging on in there, partly out of love, but also because he doesn’t want to confront how the relationship has come to define him.

Things hit rock bottom in ways that are shocking and sometimes hard to watch. What’s refreshing about Ira Sachs’ film is that it doesn’t feel compelled to hit some of the more predictable touchstones. He is matter of fact and understated about coming out or an HIV test, and commendably reistant to turning these moments into teachable, preachable scenes. However, his script is less nimble when it comes to dodging the clichés of drug addiction.

If the diagnosis of the couple’s relationship sounds pat – one man is hooked on drugs while his partner can’t wean himself off an unhealthy relationship – this may come down to the fact that the details have been boiled down before. This film is a ­fictionalised memoir based on Sachs’ relationship with literary agent Bill Clegg, who published his side of their ­story in 2010 as the book Portrait Of An Addict. And yet, although both men have conducted what amounts to a substantial archaeological dig over their relationship, Keep The Lights On is awfully slight compared to, say, Andrew Haigh’s smartly observant Weekend, last year’s engrossing British film about two men circling each other at the start of a relationship. It’s also rather one-sided, offering a richer portrait of Erik/Sachs. Not that either of them seem sufficiently rounded out on screen to make their romance feel compelling and eloquent.

Paul may be a drug addict, but Erik comes across as a sad sacrificial martyr who would nail himself to a cross if he could find enough wood. «

Glasgow Film Theatre, Thursday