I was impressed by Bill Clegg, who’d written a memoir about his drug addiction, after reading an ecstatic 2010 Vogue magazine profile. But I was not impressed by an excerpt from his book. Then I was impressed by his ex-lover Ira Sachs’ film version of Clegg’s addiction, as seen from inside their relationship.
Keep The Lights On is a simple film, made of a handful of choice ingredients: lighting that’s either natural or looks it, a leading actor whose face registers emotions as a puddle registers the breeze, a male co-star whose natural beauty befuddles the viewer, and a script that traces the bare outlines of an intimate relationship between two young male careerists who can’t quite manage to stay together despite the force of their love — in an aestheticized Manhattan, cinema verite style, plus a spacious country retreat.
If I thought about it, and I have, I could criticize the film for being so heavily weighted in favor of the director’s alter ego, Erik, showing him with his friends, at work on his movie, winning a Teddy in Berlin, dialing for tricks on his princess phone, throwing up in the bathroom of a gay bar alongside a beautiful man who won’t go to bed with him — while only ever showing the boyfriend, Paul, in the context of their relationship, in which context Paul is a mostly inscrutable, self-destructive, unreliable prick.
But I didn’t think all that as I was watching the film because I was smitten by blond Danish leading man Thure Lindhardt, who needs to make an onscreen Hamlet fast, for which this can serve as a dry run, not that anybody gets killed, but my god, you can sense the man’s thought processes, muddled though they be, I mean his face is a silly putty mask across which we watch his emotions skitter — mists across the moon, mutable shifting lights and shadows, blond eyebrows, watery blue eyes, and questions unasked and unanswered.
If Lindhart be a sea of unforced reactions, then his nemesis, Zachary Booth, is an impenetrably lovely facade behind which god knows what demons writhe. Some shots of the porcelain publishing whiz kid’s face simply seize your mind in adoration of his perfect features. He kept reminding me of an old roommate who looked like a young Julie Andrews. He needs to remake The Portrait of Dorian Gray fast. Very convincing as a callow, shallow narcissist-cum-pain-in-the-ass, no pun intended, he never gets the chance to show us how he pulls off the high-pressure publishing deals that pay for the crack. We never see him with a manuscript, just a fey workaday over-the-shoulder tote.
Inter-titles announce the years 1998, 2000, 2003, 2006 — a device that deflates any accumulating tension in this loose weave, impressionist, almost trivial selection of scenes on the path to break-up. There’s a lightness to this film that makes it highly watchable, or edible, like a souffle, and maybe it’s not quite as convincing towards the end, when Paul’s addiction gets the upper hand. Just how low does he sink? We’re shown a brief threesome with a rent boy in an overpriced hotel meant to represent, I guess, the depths of moral depravity. It’s awfully pretty.
The film’s innate flaw is to glamorize the point-of-view of the person not having the experience. Casting the more interesting actor in the less interesting role skews everything. We spend all our time with him, leaving the guy with the secret to walk off at film’s end almost a stranger, for all the time we’ve spent together in bed.
Erik, who’s soft-spoken to the point of mumbling, a cuddly tousled bohemian who happens to be addicted to an addict, seems incurably baffled by his successful partner’s behavior. Paul recedes, Erik can no longer locate him, and thereby opens a sea of incomprehension that lingers in the wake of this pleasurable film.
What was Paul searching for in the crack pipe? What was Erik searching for in Paul? These questions are never addressed. They might be worth looking into. Maybe there’s something in that book by Bill Clegg — after all, he’s the one who made the descent into hell.
Keep The Lights On opens Friday, September 14, at the Embarcadero in San Francisco, the Shattuck in Berkeley, and the Rafael Film Center in San Rafael.