ZACHARY HAINES ’14
Around this time a year ago, I saw a gorgeous film by burgeoning director Andrew Haigh called “Weekend.” The film chronicles the single weekend in which Russell (Tom Cullen) and Glen (Chris New) first meet. At the time, Russell is only a few steps out of the closet that Glen came parading through years ago. Even though their respective lifestyles suggest incompatibility, the two wake up from what started as a one-night-stand unable to deny the elusive chemistry at work. Never before have I seen a film capture the passionate inceptive moments of a relationship in such a nuanced way that, at the same time, avoids ostentation—just two days, two men, and the beginnings of something beautiful.
This weekend I went to see Sundance favorite Ira Sachs’ (writer and director of “Married Life,” “Forty Shades of Blue,” and “The Delta”) newest endeavor “Keep the Lights On,” which has been garnering comparisons to Haigh’s “Weekend” from the likes of A.O. Scott of the “New York Times.” Scott commended both films for “mapping the nuances of feeling that arise between men for whom sex is the easy part” and “examining the complexities of gay life.” I, for my part, could not find fewer grounds for comparison between these two films; in fact, I will risk saying that it has been a long while since I’ve seen a film less “nuanced” than “Keep the Lights On.”
But first, some plot summary: the movie opens with a rather promising scene in which Danish documenatry filmmaker Erik (Thure Lindhart) connects with a young lawyer named Paul (Zachary Booth) over a phone-sex line. After their first hook-up, Paul informs Erik that their visits can’t become a regular thing; Paul, after all, has a girlfriend. Through some course of events that the filmmakers found unnecessary to show us, Paul goes from being totally in-the-closet to living with Erik. Paul’s work as a documentarian is also hinted at, as are his relationships with several rather anonymous friends and a swarthy young art student named Igor—however, none of these avenues are satisfactorily pursued and serve only to muddle a film that already struggles with its own temporality.
What the film does track with a more certain precision is Paul’s descent into drug and alcohol addiction. For years he makes a habit of disappearing for days at a time, refusing to inform Erik of his whereabouts. Eventually an intervention is staged, and things return to normal. However, it is only a matter of time before Paul relapses again, this time into habits that Erik is unable and unwilling to overlook. Just when the film could have made even the slightest impact by ending, it chooses instead to prolong the suffering of its characters and its viewers. Years later, Erik and Paul meet up and decide to rekindle their old flame. The film reiterates itself without attempting to state anything new about its characters or to investigate any new emotional territory.
Now, back to what I was saying earlier about this film’s attention to detail: I was stunned to find such attention nonexistent. The film grazed over the formative months of Paul and Erik’s relationship and deigned to embellish its characters in any way that might provoke empathy. Sachs and his co-writer Mauricio Zacharias completely forsook the opportunity to show us how Paul and Erik fell in love, but still expect us to mourn their deterioration. No author can ask his or her audience to appreciate what they haven’t first invited them to understand; the result is our complete detachment from the characters and their situation. In addition, without the support of a convincing history, the actions and events supposedly driven by their mutual affection feel unconvincing and disingenuous. All of this is compounded by the fact that the leading actors Thure Lindhart and Zachary Booth exhibit little to no on-screen chemistry.
Moreover, I found the film’s exploration of the “complexities of gay life,” yet another quality lauded by Scott in the “Times,” half-hearted at best. Singular scenes revolve around certain LGBT-specific buzzwords like HIV, closetedness, and surrogacy; however, these issues are never incorporated into the story with any particular relevance or necessity, making their inclusion seem obligatory and contrived. In my opinion, this film could be remade into endless variations with characters of all different sexual orientations and it would still have a long way to go to work as a love story, or as a story that can in any way claim to deal with “complexity.”
All that being said, if you are searching for a film that effervesces with the most delicately executed and subtly enacted type of romance between two individuals, regardless of sexuality, please check out Andrew Haigh’s “Weekend”—it achieves in two days what “Keep the Lights On” could not achieve in nine years!
I only hope that the filmmakers of “Keep the Lights On” can also glean something from Haigh’s work so that their next effort does attempt to examine the mechanics of a relationship without such carelessness. The film’s last showing is Tuesday, Oct. 23.