Ira Sachs’s ‘Keep the Lights On’ Turns a Lens Onto Love and Shame

There have been plenty of "gay" movies in the last few decades. Philadelphia comes to mind, as does Brokeback Mountain. But none—neither those two, nor Milk, nor A Single Man, nor any other major American title anyone could name—focus on a realistic depiction of what it’s like to be a contemporary gay man. The typical Hollywood idea of a gay man is a fallen one; a hero, for sure, who can conquers many obstacles, but one who ultimately meets his demise at the hands of either others (as in the case of Brokeback Mountain or Milk), or nature (as in Philadelphia). To be gay in a mainstream movie is to be sad, alone, or doomed to die. All that has changed with the brilliant Keep the Lights On, directed and co-written by Ira Sachs.

"I had never seen a film that I felt conveyed what it’s been like for me to live in New York as a gay man, as an artist, as a filmmaker, as a part of both the subculture and also mainstream culture," Sachs told me a few weeks ago when I asked him if his film, which chronicles the relationship between a documentarian named Erik, played effortlessly by Danish actor Thure Lindhardt, and his lawyer boyfriend Paul, portrayed by Zachary Booth, had any sort of specific agenda. "That was the agenda. I wanted to make a film about the destructive nature of shame, but to do so shamelessly. I think gay people have created a lot of nocturnal behavior that they keep in hiding, and I tried to talk about that but to do so openly."

There is a certain nighttime culture among gay men, especially those who live in urban areas like New York City, in which courtship has been replaced almost entirely with methods by which people can find and sleep with each other with the least effort possible. In an age when Grindr is a popular app found on many gay men’s iPhones, it’s hard to remember that hook-up culture, which is in no way exclusive to gay men, has existed in the days before we were connected via wires and computers. Keep the Lights On begins in 1998, a no man’s land in which homosexuality was becoming more and more accepted by the mainstream (Ellen DeGeneres, who famously came out of the closet the year before, became one of the first post-Stonewall and post-AIDS role models for gay people in America), and its main characters meet for the first time after interacting through a phone sex hotline. What was intended to be a one-night stand ("I have a girlfriend," Paul tells Erik, "so don’t get your hopes up.") evolves into a tumultuous ten-year relationship as the pair deals with Paul’s crack and sex addiction.

It’s not a cheery Hollywood story, but it does unapologetically depict gay culture on the precipice of the new millennium (and later, after times—if not particularly attitudes—had changed). It was also based on elements taken from Sachs’s actual life. "I was coming out of a relationship," Sachs told me, which is not a startling revelation. Sachs’s former partner, the literary agent Bill Clegg, famously battled a drug addiction which he chronicled in his 2010 memoir, Portrait of the Addict as a Young Man. Rather than using his own film as a cathartic revenge tale, however, Sachs found that his story was a relatable one, sorely missing not only from the collective narrative of the gay experience but also as one that transcends sexual preference. "I think the distinctions between gay and straight communality have blended in the last twenty years. I think a lot of films don’t tend to reflect that, either."

A specific touch that Sachs incorporated to extend the universal themes at play in Keep the Lights On was one he used in his first feature, Forty Shades of Blue, which took place in Memphis and featured a Russian woman caught in a love triangle between her much-older husband and his son: at the center of the action is a foreigner, one who is literally and figuratively an outsider. "I identify with that in many ways," Sachs explained. "I feel that as a gay person, as a Jewish person, as someone who grew up in the South. I also find it, dramatically, an interesting position. It goes along with the drama and the tension between what people show and what people hide." What was most important—and what is clearly the center of the film—is the theme of disconnection, which is a feeling that not only runs rampant within the gay community, but in most urban communities, especially those in New York. 

The film almost presents sexuality on a very base, human level, never shying away from the erotic nature at the center of the film’s relationship. It does not, however, seem gratuitous, nor is it shocking, despite what more articles about the film have suggested. It is, on the contrary, fairly tame. While there is both nudity and simulated sex, Sachs does not linger on them any longer than someone directing an intimate scene between a heterosexual couple in any other mainstream film. It is European in its sensibility, one in which, Sachs explained, "the body is not something that’s feared." Of the cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis, best known for the Academy Award-nominated Dogtooth, Sachs said, "He doesn’t look at sex as any different than any other scene in the movie. The dinner party scene is shot just the same as the first sex scene, as is the first fight between two men. Everything is a neutral approach so the sex isn’t separated from everyday behavior." 

The sex plays an important role, however, and Sachs refused to avoid it. The first sex scene between Erik and Paul was, after all, the first that Zachary Booth shot with his costar, with whom he had spent one single evening on a faux date in order to become comfortable with each other. "There is an incredible amount of intimacy that exists between two people after they have sex, and so if that’s where you start, it’s sort of different than what we consider the traditional method of forming intimacy," Booth told me. "Maybe that’s part of the reason so many people search for that. It’s not just that they want to feel good and get their rocks off; there is an intimacy that is emotionally satisfying from that. So that’s what we did. We reached for it that day and then we really followed the pattern I imagine [Sachs] did in life, which was that we slowly got to know each other better and became more and more comfortable, but our characters had gone so far with each other physically that we had so much weighing on it." It is such behavior that both succeeds and fails in establishing connections, one that is rarely seen on film and which Sachs thinks "is a comfort to audiences because they realize they’re not alone in that."

"We still live in a very puritanical society in which sex is connected to shame," Sachs said. "Everybody has secrets and quiet, dark corners where they do things in shadows that they’re uncomfortable with. Gay culture created a certain set of behaviors that were necessary because of how little space and how much fear there was for us to live our lives openly and sexually. Is that still working? Is that still necessary? I wanted to show, without judgment, the consequences of secrets on our lives." Keep the Lights On, with its honest portrayal of the ups and downs of an urban lifestyle that happens to concentrate on gay characters, is not exploitive as much as it is refreshingly realistic and cathartic—an admission of the joys and woes of being a urban-dwelling gay man. "For most of us, it’s actually difficult to admit that there are many things we’re doing at night that we don’t want people to know about," Sachs concluded. "As an artist, that’s a form of repression; it took me a lot of time to get to the point where I could actually say, ‘This is how I lived.’" Ultimately, Sachs’s film encourages that acknowledgement and inspires a little hope. 

Contact the author of this post at tyler@blackbookmag.com, and follow him on Twitter.

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