Ira Sachs' drama charts the relationship of a gay male couple over nearly 10 years, beginning in 1997. Erik (Thure Lindhardt), a Danish filmmaker (and a bit of a slacker) living in Manhattan, meets Paul (Zachary Booth), a publishing lawyer, during a casual hook-up. But the two quickly develop an intense relationship, and move in together.
But in the ensuing years, the couple — together and individually — struggle with expectations, obsession, relationship boundaries and drug addiction. It becomes the proverbial toxic, co-dependent relationship, in which the two men crash, break up and re-connect, with increasingly poor results.
Keep the Lights On has a European vibe, in its moodiness, and its use of small disjointed scenes to sketch out its fuller story. Likewise, it is a frank and unsentimental portrayal of a rocky, adult relationship, though some of this raw energy drains out of the final third, as Erik and Paul grow apart.
Sachs depicts this melodrama in a low-key fashion (that occasionally veers into boring). But his best asset is Lindhardt: The Danish actor draws us into Erik's troubled emotional state, and into his fumbling to sort out what he wants from love, and how much he can give. Paul, unfortunately, remains a cipher, and his journey is much less developed.
The title offers a double meaning, underscoring this melancholic film's themes. Keeping the lights on is a caution, a suggestion that relationship troubles should not be left to fade into any convenient shadows. But it's also wistful, a reminder that working to keep a love vibrant is a battle worth engaging in, even when the consequences seem dire.