Love is not all: it is not meat nor drink
Nor slumber nor a roof against the rain;
…………..
I might be driven to sell your love for peace,
Or trade the memory of this night for food.
It well may be. I do not think I would.

– Edna St Vincent Millay, Sonnet XXX from “Fatal Interview” (1931)

The art of Boris Torres featured in the opening titles of Keep the Lights On it stunning. It evokes both the homoerotic subtleties of Henry Scott Tuke and the modern, almost voyeuristic realism of Gustave Courbet, combining to read as a Gauguin-like chronicle of gay culture in the twentieth century. Like the art, the film itself is a chronicle, spanning the utterly passionate and devastating course of a decade-long relationship. Significantly, it takes place in Manhattan, straddling the years before and after the millennium, thereby securing its place in the anthropology of gay culture during this period. That being said, it is a story about love and relationships: how they endure, how they fail, and ultimately for Erik and Paul (Thure Lindhardt and Zachary Booth, both outstanding in their nuanced and complex performances), how the two are not always compatible.

It is a film about balances and synchrony, who the two men are together in comparison to who they are apart. As the film is mostly centred around Erik, it is his progression as a character that catalogues the development of the relationship – his joys tempered by his worries about Paul, his frustration eased by Paul’s rehabilitation. The vice-like hold of Paul’s addiction compels them to their bleakest moments, Paul growing ever more isolated and Erik ever more restless, and the startling honesty of the consequences – Erik coming to the realisation that he cannot change the man he loves, that loving an addict means coming second to the substance – is wrought with the searing pains of the reality of drug addiction. Like Requiem for a Dream, there is no hero of this narrative; the drugs best them both. Both men are equally confused and flawed, consumed by indecision, discontentment, but ultimately bound by loyalty and the love that can be often dispelled by the tension in their relationship. Nevertheless, the love is there, in all its dizzying happiness and sweet awkwardness, compelling them back together as they keep trying.

There are few sustained long shots in the film, but the two that come to mind are perfect parallels of each other: Erik at the beginning, walking with purpose towards Paul’s apartment for the first time, their first encounter; Erik at the end, walking with purpose away from Paul, as the relationship ends. The latter scene is not meant to be taken with resentment, but with a sense of finality, of being able to move on from a relationship that was as devastating as it was exhilarating. Keep the Lights On is a relationship in three acts – the sex which brings them together, the love which sustains them, and the drugs which ultimately drive them apart. The love, however, remains.

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