KEEP THE LIGHTS ON is a classic romance, only gay

Last year, Andrew Haigh’s WEEKEND proved to be a low-key drama about a gay hookup that lasted as long as the title, with bittersweet results. The film was sincere and likable and once again sent out the message that indie cinema bravely goes where Hollywood rarely dares.

This year, we’ve come even farther with Ira Sachs’ Sundance Film Festival selection KEEP THE LIGHTS ON, in which a gay hookup lasts something like nine years (starting in 1998). It’s a classic romance — something that in the old days might have starred Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr — but it’s been modernized and more emotionally realized, while given a knowing same-sex spin that lends it extra specialness. LIGHTS’ spotlight on a gay relationship seems refreshing considering how boy-girl everything usually tends to be, and yet the characters come off just like, you know, people!

The two lead males are mismatched, yet seem to fit together, for all their contrasting patterns and agendas. They happen to be a documentarian named Erik (feisty Danish actor Thure Lindhardt) and a closety lawyer (opaquely intriguing Zachary Booth from Damages), who meet sexy, develop into a couple and try to sort their way to happiness. In time, these two end up fighting over flirting issues, compulsive drug use and the fact that only the lawyer has an actual job. They’re on and off. They’re up and down. As they love and lose, the mood is deliberate and measured, managing to be both dreamy and lifelike. At times the guys seem mopy and pensive, but they come to life when they’re working out their issues, whether in bed, a bar or beyond.

Though the documentarian is researching the impact of imagery in gay history, there’s very little talk about the larger picture or the state of the union; both characters are way too immersed in their romantic problems and physical/emotional needs to care about much beyond their four walls. And that seems lifelike too — as do the extremely convincing sex and phone-sex scenes, which Cary and Deborah definitely wouldn’t have touched.

Sachs — who directed this semiautobiographical tale based on a screenplay by himself and Mauricio Zacharias — has done better here than in his straight-couple movie, the arch 2008 melodrama MARRIED LIFE. In this, he uses piercing Arthur Russell music as a mournful backdrop, though long stretches have no background sound at all except that of life in New York. I bet Hollywood remakes it — with Channing Tatum and Kate Hudson.

Photo credit: Music Box Films