After winning a major award at the Berlin International Film Festival earlier this year and debuting locally at the Indie Memphis Film Festival last weekend, Memphis-raised filmmaker Ira Sachs' fourth feature film, Keep the Lights On, begins a full run this week at Studio on the Square.
The ambitious, autobiographical relationship drama tracks the troubled, decade-long romance between a couple of New Yorkers: filmmaker Erik (Thure Lindhardt, recently nominated for a Gotham Independent Film Award for best breakthrough actor) and Paul (Zachary Booth), an initially closeted lawyer who is also hiding a serious drug addiction. It's an unflinching, almost diaristic film in which Sachs digs into his own recent romantic history.
This transparency manifests itself in some extremely frank material involving drugs and sex, but these scenes make the impact they do in part because, like everything in Keep the Lights On, they're grounded in feelings of love and longing, with a palpable emotional intimacy and with a heft that's somewhat new for Sachs, whose previous films (The Delta, Sundance winner Forty Shades of Blue, and Married Life) have depicted smaller stories in tighter time frames.
Keep the Lights On has been called a "landmark" film in terms of gay cinema, and part of that might be the film's thrilling combination of frankness and lack of self-consciousness about how "gay" plays in a straight world. It doesn't make allowances for any potential audience discomfort in the manner of, for instance, something like Brokeback Mountain.
Also fresh is the way in which Sachs weaves elements of gay culture — the artwork of Sachs' husband, Boris Torres; a soundtrack of songs from late New York musician Arthur Russell; a dive into gay film history via Erik's documentary on lost filmmaker Avery Willard — seamlessly into his love story. Even the against-the-grain decision to shoot on 16mm film seams to tap into a certain subterranean cultural history.
Keep the Lights On has been compared to last year's gay indie romance, Weekend, which was a good film. But Keep the Lights On is bigger, bolder, and more richly cinephilic than that. Its streets-of-New-York vibe echoes Scorsese. Its blunt intimacy and homemade quality — partly shot in Sachs' own New York apartment — suggest indie maverick John Cassavetes. Its visual texture and bruising romanticism remind me of Hong Kong great Wong Kar-Wai (Happy Together, In the Mood for Love). It's not for all tastes, by any stretch, but it's a significant film.
Keep the Lights On
Opening Friday, November 9th
Studio on the Square