The protagonist of Ira Sachs’ Keep The Lights On, a slouching, congenitally morose filmmaker played by Danish actor Thure Lindhardt, has poured years of his life into a documentary on a little-known photographer named Avery Willard, whose work, Lindhardt believes, constitutes “a visual anthropology of gay life in New York.” Sachs’ fourth feature doesn’t have anything as ambitious, or as clinical, as anthropology on its mind, but in charting the course of a single gay relationship over more than a decade, he constructs a poignant case study in the changing contours of gay life.
Minutes after Lindhardt first has sex with Zachary Booth, a bowl-cut book editor who’s still in the closet, he’s staring at Booth like an a eager pup, but Booth deflates his aspirations: “I have a girlfriend, by the way, so don’t get your hopes up.” Lindhardt eventually wins him over with quiet persistence and endless malleability: When they’re together and Booth’s now-ex-girlfriend walks in, Lindhardt agreeably hides while Booth and his ex have a few words, then chases his lover down the street, playfully yelling, “Coward!”
Even once the two move in together, their relationship stabilizes only slightly. Booth has a troubled relationship with intimacy, compounded by a growing addiction to crack. When he takes off for days without notice, it’s not clear whether he’s on a bender or just needs room to breathe. They drift apart, sometimes for long spans, elided by Sachs’ method of using offhand remarks and subtle editing tricks to denote the passage of time. He isn’t interested in events so much as moments, fleeting and almost imperceptible.
Sachs’ doesn’t bother to hide Keep The Lights On’s basis in autobiography: His own forthcoming documentary about Avery Willard has the same title as the one Lindhardt’s character is working on. Sachs’ first feature was Down In The Delta; Lindhardt’s filmography contains a movie called Outside Of Louisiana. But Keep The Lights On feels less like a memoir than a collage made from diary scraps, evocative but not prescriptive. There’s an unfussy lyricism to the way Sachs puts the film together, keyed to the sloppy soulfulness of Lindhardt’s beguiling presence. Watching it is like remembering something that happened to someone else.