Starring Thure Lindhart and Zachary Booth
Directed by Ira Sachs
This is the gay world in 1998 in New York City, where the clubs were gritty, a community feeling the major effects of HIV, when bathhouses and sex clubs are illegal, a world that has yet to discover Manhunt and Grindr. And since those are the other circumstances and ways that gay people live and meet each other, there are also the hotlines like the one used by Eric (Lindhart), Keep the Lights On’s protagonist. Originally from Denmark, he speaks with this gravel-y accented voice that becomes funnier the longer we hear it because of how ridiculous the performative aspect of sexuality is. Eventually he hits a few home runs, one of whom is a younger looking man named Paul (Booth) who works in publishing and has a girlfriend. But even if these hookups seem temporary on the surface, a mix of pure will and serendipity means that he’ll meet these men again, especially Paul, who makes him feel what he believes is real love.
As romance stories go, trouble looms, and it looms shockingly early in this movie. Eric’s second stay at Paul’s apartment involves shared drugs, and what seems like recreational use becomes an addiction. This will probably sound judgmental but I still have rules about relationships. Since I’ve broken so many already, I still have a drug rule which is don’t do drugs, that’s the rule. At the same time, we as an audience should understand that just like in life, fictional characters can’t choose who they end up loving. It’s easy to dismiss people as strangers instead of accepting them and helping them work out their flaws. Eric has the same approach in the movie, the humanistic one. As he lets Paul into his life, we also remember how rampant drugs are within the community, and our – projecting – defenselessness to a difficult issue that no one can or wants to solve. Eric equally has a hand within the problem, taking drugs recreationally with and without Paul.
Although drugs and their effects take a brutally central place here, it’s not the only aspect of the story that we see. The movie takes place within sections of an eight year span, most of which Eric uses to direct a documentary. In between ‘work’ he goes on road trips to cabins with his friends, the latter of whom surround him. An aspect I’ll never get about most romantic movies is how one-sided the story is, in this case only showing Eric’s bourgeois milieu. Except for the occasional supervisor, we don’t get to see Paul’s peers. By keeping Paul at an arm’s distance the movie lets its audience assume that all his friends are drugged up rent boys. Although I do feel that by showing less of Paul’s side of the story, the movie becomes less overwrought. Despite this problem, Booth’s performance, as well as Lindhart, shows the urgency of their problem. And we don’t have to necessarily see both men as representatives of the community and instead, it allows us to see them as human beings capable of love and broken so that they can’t fully enjoy it.
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