There's a nerve-racking sequence set in the late 1990s in co-writer and director Ira Sachs' "Keep the Lights On" when Erik, the Danish expatriate filmmaker living in Manhattan played by Thure Lindhardt, is on the telephone, trying to extract information from his doctor regarding the results of an HIV blood test.
By law, the doctor says (we never see her on screen), she cannot relay those results by phone. But through a series of carefully worded questions and answers, Erik gets an answer. The way this conversation is fashioned by Lindhardt, Sachs, co-screenwriter Mauricio Zacharias and the first-rate cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis (shooting on warm, mellow 16-millimeter film), it feels exactly right — halting, honest, truthful.
"Keep the Lights On," now at the Music Box Theatre, dips in and out of Erik's storm-tossed multiyear relationship with a publishing house lawyer, played by Zachary Booth. The best of the movie, which is Sachs' most satisfying yet, shares those same honest traits.
The boyfriend has it all: looks, charm, some money. But he's on the closet-y side. And more problematically, he's a crack cocaine user and an alcoholic, given to binges, days-long disappearing acts, and sad returns and entreaties.
This comes from Sachs' own biographical resume. The movie is a fictionalized version of Sachs' relationship with the literary agent Bill Clegg, who wrote two memoirs detailing his drug dependency and how it informed every corner of his life. "We always liked a little melodrama, you and I," Booth's Paul says with a smile in a later moment. The strength of the film lies in Sachs' laconic approach to the melodrama, the push-pull of so many relationships. It's familiar to anyone who saw Sachs' earlier pictures "Forty Shades of Blue" and "Married Life."
"Keep the Lights On" is very shrewd in its depiction of what an addiction is like to live with secondhand. Casually, with a deceptive ease, Sachs also gives us an intimate yet panoramic look at New York City across several years through these combustible characters, before and after the turn of the century. In his first English-language leading role, the Danish actor Lindhardt has his strident and effortful moments; I'm not sure the way he chooses to make Eric a yearning, needy puppy-dog of a man always serves the narrative balance. Booth fares better, in a portrayal of cagey reserve. Together the actors, along with a good supporting cast including Julianne Nicholson as Erik's loyal friend, fill in the blanks. The years click by; Sachs' characters, none of whom is unsympathetic, simply try to make sense of the love they share, even as it's tested to its limits.
No MPAA rating (nudity, sexual content, language, drug use)
Running time: 1:46
Opens: Friday at the Music Box Theatre