One of the best movies I’ve seen so far at Sundance, the poignant gay love story Keep the Lights On, reminded of me of Shame, but with more emotional depth and less air of an art installation. It’s also a completely exceptional romance, one steeped in the realities of sex and intimacy, and with the acknowledgment that not all relationships, even the deepest and most intimate ones, succeed.
It helps, in both intensity and structure, that this fictional love story is based on the real-life relationship of Ira Sachs, who wrote and directed the movie, and literary agent Bill Clegg. Erik, the film’s main character, meets Paul, a semi-closeted literary lawyer with a girlfriend, on a phone sex chat line in 1998. What begins as a one-night stand evolves into a decade-long on-and-off romance, Paul and Erik’s cohabitation interrupted by Paul’s trips to rehab and relapses into a crack addiction. The men disappoint each other, Paul by failing to show up for the triumph of Erik’s long-gestating documentary about a seminal New York gay artist, Erik through indecisiveness and devotion that begins to feel like a weight.
Paul’s addictions, and the things it makes him do as a result, provide the movie’s obvious parallel to Shame, if the movie released last year was told from the perspective of someone Brandon perpetually hurt rather than Brandon himself. Erik undergoes an escalating series of worries and humiliations as Paul spirals deeper into his relationship with crack, panicking when the same lover who threw him surprise parties and gives him thoughtful gifts vanishes for days and winds up passed out in the hall of their apartment. In the movie’s most searing sequence, Erik refuses to leave the hotel room where Paul is holed up on a crack binge during a relapse. While Paul muses nervously about his weight loss, explaining “It’s the crackhead diet, I wouldn’t recommend it,” and promising he’ll return home tomorrow, Erik refuses to leave until Paul is ready to go home or to rehab. And he stays even when a hooker Paul’s ordered arrives. When Paul asks Erik not to leave, Erik sits on the bed and holds Paul’s hand while the other man has sex with Paul. It’s simultaneously a humiliation and a deeply moving statement of intimacy and love.
Sex in the movie isn’t all grim, though. Keep The Lights On features some of the better sex scenes I’ve ever seen on-screen. Erik’s periodic hookups before his relationship with Paul solidifies and when it’s in a lacuna are alternately funny and satisfying. When he and Paul go to bed, the sex they have is simultaneously tender and awkward — it looks real, which is vastly more than can be said for most movie sex scenes, and is vastly sexier as a result. In the decade after the emergence of the AIDS crisis, the syndrome is present, but not dominant. A scene where Erik panics on a payphone begging a clinic worker to give him the result of his latest HIV test even though she’s not supposed to tell him over the phone is a stand-out for star Thure Lindhardt.
And sex isn’t the only kind of intimacy in the movie. Throughout the rise and fall of Erik and Paul’s romance, Erik relies on his best friend Claire (Julianne Nicholson, who deserves to be known beyond her stint on Law & Order: Criminal Intent) for support. They discuss having a baby, and she’s one of the few people who can challenge him on his reticence. “I’ve been hiding crucial events of my life since I was 13 years old,” he tells her at one point, provoking a tough but loving reminder that “That’s no excuse!” As his relationship with Paul falters, Erik also makes a tentative connection with a young artist named Igor. And when he and Paul finally split for good, Igor’s promise “I’ll take you to dinner,” is a reminder that even when big relationships fail, there are always new beginnings.