Between Men

Ira Sachs, Keep the Lights On, 2012, 35 mm, color, 102 minutes.

TRACING THE TURBULENT vicissitudes of a young New York couple over the arc of a decade, Keep the Lights On keeps the camera trained—almost unwaveringly—on the pair’s faces and physiognomies, arguments and intimacies, by turns steeped in pleasure or charged with anguish. Eric, a Danish, thirtysomething documentary filmmaker who has yet to fulfill his early promise, turns a casual trick with Paul, a closeted lawyer who—after a steamy one-nighter—tells Eric not to get his hopes up, as he has a girlfriend. Against those odds their relationship evolves, but only apace with Paul’s drug-fueled devolution. At the dinner table or in the bedroom, on the street and on the couch, we are plunged along with the pair into the travails of a relationship that never quite works, no matter how much they work at it.

The film thus stakes itself upon a rather stark solipsism of two. We get brief glimpses of the protagonists’ professions, some interventions by close friends and family into the tempest of their relationship. For the most part, however, the plot hangs on the spare skeleton of codependency, a fragile love and its mounting discontents. Not much narrative or sociological flesh is hung on those bones. The specter of HIV surfaces early in the film, in a scene rife with the particular self-blame that has so often terrorized gay men. That it happens on a pay phone only underscores the director’s deft evocation of its late-1990s moment. Yet Sachs, who has created some compelling work on the theme of AIDS, passes over that thread here in favor of the (not unrelated) problem of drug addiction. Or, rather, one man’s spiraling dependency and its effects upon his partner.

To that end, the film distinguishes itself with a keen eye for mood and moodiness. The cinematography of its close-ups is especially striking, whether in the tension of a symmetrically framed car scene, or in the economy of Eric’s searching, inquisitive eyes glimpsed over his lover’s turned head; the crinkled relief of a shower curtain betraying an embrace, or a scene of lovemaking cropped into near-abstract forms. But an idealized physical beauty—or the more quixotic ideal of perfect romance it might evoke—is not part of this film’s particular vision. Eroticism here is expressly imperfect; sex proceeds with an often discomfiting awkwardness; lovers’ quarrels are marked by a certain aggression, even violence to the self. Every relationship, Keep the Lights On seems to imply, entails its own unspoken addictions. Substances make literal—and make worse—the needs and neediness that bring individuals together to begin with. The reasons why these two particular men come together is at times rendered a bit too elliptically. That makes it more difficult to care about what ultimately splits them apart.

Ira Sachs’s Keep the Lights On plays at the Museum of Modern Art on Wednesday, September 5th and opens at various theaters in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, September 7th.