I finally watched Keep the Lights On on DVD this weekend and have been trying to put into words what exactly bothered me so much about this seemingly accomplished film, which takes the viewer into one corner of the drug-soaked world of late '90s gay Chelsea. You have to at least give the lead character Erik (Thure Lindhardt) -- a Danish documentary filmmaker -- some credit for sticking with his boyfriend for so long. Or maybe not. The tall, wan, pretty Paul (Zachary Booth) after all is an unrepentant crack addict who relapses in grand fashion and doesn't seem to truly express any remorse -- he goes through the motions of attending rehab but the viewer doesn't quite believe in his sincerity (at least I didn't, call me fickle). And if we are to judge from a midnight phone sex episode, Paul at least occasionally cheats on Erik (and vice-versa, if one-night phone hook ups count as cheating in this world, I am not sure). In spite of the fact that Paul is a bright fellow and a lawyer working for a leading publishing house, he seems about as emotionally and intellectually deep as a puddle of water. He can be snarky and funny, and even romantic at times, but he never seems very invested in his opinions or feelings. Erik is so insecure and needy (and apparently so head over heels in love with Paul) that he simply will not leave him, no matter how much crack Paul ingests and how many missed dates his binging leads to.
It is almost besides the point (or is it?) that this semi-autobiographical film is apparently based on the director's own real-life relationship with the literary agent Bill Clegg, who famously went on a $70,000 two-month crack and call-boy binge in some of New York's tonier hotels. One would have more empathy for Erik if one did not suspect that his attraction to Paul is largely based on the type of superficial surface attraction that men -- straight or gay -- are often accused of engaging in. In Hollywood films, one expects a certain slavishness to otherworldly good looks when casting a film -- in an indie film of this nature, it seems almost gratuitous: Booth is ethereal, almost unbearably pretty and fawn-like. There is also something almost dishonest about Paul's feigned innocence in the way that he presents himself. We know that Erik and Paul spend time together -- much of it in bed -- but in the end they seem to not have all that much in common, emotionally or otherwise. Paul seems to be the type of guy/gay who (like Mr. Clegg in real life) is given the kind of second chances that most mere mortals can only dream of -- huge advances on books, jobs in prestige firms and of course boyfriends who keep coming back for more (Do I sound bitter? Sue me.)
To its credit, Keep the Lights On is beautifully shot and has well-paced. It has a languid feel to it which is appealing at first, but it lacks the humor or grit of say Sid and Nancy (now there's a good drug-love pic) or the humor of Lisa Cholodenko's The Kids Are All Right. A deeper exploration of the emotional bonds that link Erik to Paul (not to mention the nefarious effects of crack on most users) might have yielded a film that goes far beyond its appeal to mainly LGBT audiences. And yet there is something compelling and recognizably human in both the characters' behavior, for neither can stop himself from indulging in his respective, self-destructive addiction. And as the film slowly comes to an end, the viewer can't help but wonder what he would do if he were in either of the their places.