“Keep the Lights On ,” which opens Sept. 7, is a balancing act typical of this director of “Forty Shades of Blue ” (2005): a film based on highly intimate and painful autobiographical material that doesn’t rely on audience members having that knowledge to exert a hold on them. In “Keep the Lights On” those who know the back story will recognize the movie, set in Manhattan, as a refraction of Mr. Sachs’s past relationship with Bill Clegg, the literary agent who wrote of his struggles in “Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man.” But knowing that back story is by no means crucial to appreciate the film.
It's 1997 and New York City is in a state of intense flux when documentary filmmaker Erik Rothman (Thure Lindhardt) first meets Paul Lucy (Zachary Booth), a handsome but closeted lawyer in the publishing field. What begins as a highly charged first encounter soon becomes something much more, and a relationship quickly develops. As the two men start building a home and life together, each continues to privately battle their own compulsions and addictions. A film about sex, friendship, intimacy and most of all, love, Keep the Lights On takes an honest look at the nature of relationships in our times.
The film’s references to that history are multifaceted. Mr. Sachs mentioned a just-post-Stonewall movie as a touchstone, for its candidness and milieu: “A Bigger Splash ” (1973), Jack Hazan’s docufiction account of the artist David Hockney. Within “Keep the Lights On” itself, Erik, the character broadly identifiable with Mr. Sachs, is working on a documentary about Avery Willard , the 20th-century photographer who chronicled gay life. The “Keep the Lights On” soundtrack is dominated by the melancholy cello scrapes of Arthur Russell, the sui generis New York musician whom the 2008 documentary “Wild Combination ” helped rediscover years after his death from AIDS in 1992.
Yet Mr. Sachs cited a diverse array of films: the unflinching nature of Maurice Pialat’s work, the color and openness of Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas,” the portraiture of Jean-Luc Godard’s “Passion,” the ending of “Annie Hall” and the emotional drive of Patrice Chéreau’s “Homme Blessé,” about a man obsessed with a hustler, which its French director made after living in the West Village.
Mr. Sachs’s own history in the city reaches further back, to his arrival in the mid-’80s from Memphis. Without attending film school he started to make short films after bingeing on movies during a Paris trip. His first feature, “The Delta,” chronicled a restless closeted young man in Memphis and a poor immigrant he picks up. That was followed by “Forty Shades of Blue,” about the unhappy Russian wife (Dina Korzun) of a record producer (Rip Torn), based on Mr. Sachs’s larger-than-life father, and then the 1940s period drama “Married Life,” starring Patricia Clarkson, Chris Cooper and Pierce Brosnan. His recent short film “Last Address” is simply a series of shots of the apartment buildings where artists who died of AIDS last lived.
There are moments in Keep the Lights On that are so intimate and frank that you may feel the need to look away. It is rare to see a filmmaker be this unapologetically truthful and open, but Sachs is fearless in his desire to present an honest examination of a relationship. Uncompromising in its depiction of drug addiction and the sacrifices we make for the ones we love, Sachs' film is a heartbreaking and ultimately hopeful look at the way love changes over time.
With “Keep the Lights On” the screenwriters take a different approach to certain plot points that have received clichéd treatment in other films depicting gay relationships. So Paul has a girlfriend when he meets Erik, but, as one of the cast members noted, the situation isn’t cause for anguish.
The film builds on earlier examples of gay New York cinema, like “Parting Glances,” a moving 1986 drama about a Manhattan couple facing geographic separation, as well as recent, acclaimed films depicting gay relationships, like “The Kids Are All Right” and “Weekend.”
In Mr. Sachs’s view, “Keep the Lights On” represents a leap forward. “I realize I have strength as an artist and professional by embracing my difference instead of what makes me the same,” he said.
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Characters are playing roles as:
Thure Lindhardt is playing as Erik Rothman
Zachary Booth is playing as Paul Lucy
Julianne Nicholson is playing as Claire
Souleymane Sy Savane is playing as Alassane
Paprika Steen is playing as Karen
David Anzuelo is playing as Russ's Boyfriend
Miguel del Toro is playing as Igor
Maria Dizzia is playing as Vivian
Sebastian La Cause is playing as Russ
Christopher Lenk is playing as Hustler
Aylam Orian is playing as Locksmith
Justin Reinsilber is playing as Dan
Shane Stackpole is playing as Luca - Age 7
Ed Vassallo is playing as Tom
Todd Verow is playing as Himself