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'Keep the Lights On' shines as an exploration of a complex relationship

Posted 3:16pm on Thursday, Oct. 18, 2012

Unrated (strong language, sex, drug use); 102 min.

It's a volatile combination for a couple: One man is addicted to love, the other to crack cocaine.

That's the basis of the impressive Keep the Lights On, a harsh yet delicate tale of two New Yorkers whose co-dependent relationship is fueled by sex, drugs and complex longings for companionship.

The story starts out in 1998 as young professionals Erik (Thure Lindhardt) and Paul (Zachary Booth) hook up after a phone sex chat. Paul soon extricates himself from his girlfriend, but not his crack habit. The lonely Erik quickly finds himself in too deep to turn back.

Director Ira Sachs, employing gifted cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis ( Dogtooth), opts for a grainy yet beautiful palette to tell this impressionistic story, which parachutes in at random moments during the relationship.

The film is at its best in the bedroom, not shying away from the sexual relationship but not sensationalizing it, either. There is great sex, clumsy sex, tender sex -- and it's all crucial to the story. Such genuine intimacy, whether gay or straight, is virtually nonexistent in American cinema.

The only problem here is that the story doesn't build. That was probably intentional, but the final minutes don't carry enough power, and although Keep the Lights On deftly explores the co-dependent and addictive elements of the relationship, other aspects of these characters are less drawn, leaving the actors adrift at times.

Exclusive: Landmark Magnolia, Dallas

-- David Lewis, San Francisco Chronicle

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