It’s hard to take movies to task for their failures to emulate Kate Hudson romantic comedies. The modern rom-com, as critics like A.O. Scott have noted in a bookshelf’s worth of think pieces, is neither romantic nor comedic, reduced from the witty heights of Preston Surges and Nora Ephron to ingratiating lowest-common denominator tripe that’s tough to endure even on an international flight. Traditional romances vulnerable to sentimentality aren’t faring much better. But recent high and low profile movies about gay relationships suffer from the opposite problem: despite rough edges, they seem engineered to displease.
The latest barebones gay flick to break out of the festival circuit is Ira Sachs’ Keep the Lights On, a grainy 16-millimiter portrait of 10 torturous years in the relationship of Erik (Thure Lindhardt) and Paul (Zachary Booth). It’s got a lot in common with Andrew Haigh’s Weekend (2011), except Haigh’s amorous characters, Russell (Tom Cullen) and Glen (Chris New), are lucky enough to endure just 48 hours of inspection.
Shared themes include:
Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course. But both films dispense of anything resembling a meet-cute and let their romances bloom from immediate anonymous sex. Russell and Glen drunkely meet at a worn gay bar and are barely capable of walking home for a presumed one night stand that very briefly grows into a love affair. Erik finds suitors, and eventually Paul, over the phone (KTLO opens in ’98, before Craigslist hit its stride as digital orgy marketplace), offering embellished physical descriptions to potential paramours. He also almost-maybe cheats on Paul—you’re unsure at times if they’re on- or off-again—in the bathroom at Eastern Bloc before puking all over the floor.
Frankly, I’d love more straight romances to ground themselves in realistically ignominious introductions. It’s what transpires from there that give gay flicks a bleak edge.
Rampant drug use:
Russell and Glen plow through thick ski trails in the middle of their weekend and the film wisely has nothing to say about it. Paul’s a crack addict whose disappearing acts and rehab stints repeatedly shatter Erik and their relationship. Sachs doesn’t moralize, but the unremitting emphasis on the lows rather than the (non drug-induced) highs, combined with a near total absence of humor, make you wonder why this couple sticks together when sober or stoned. Sachs’ frankness also makes KTLO the rare American idie that’s bleaker than its European counterpart. (Plenty of straight movies traffic in drugs. But, for better or worse, gay-themed or -targeted flicks, from lesbian fever dream Black Swan to hardbodied Magic Mike, treat them more flippantly.
Both films feature decisive climactic scenes at train stations. Neither includes a character realizing his foolishness, pulling a U-ey on the freeway and making it to the departure platform just as his lover climbs onboard. Still, the parting of ways in Weekend and KTLO somehow offer more ambiguous room for future opportunity than the generic straight happy ending.
I preferred Weekend to Keep the Lights On. It’s less likely to have you drawing a bath and reaching for the rusty razor blades once you get home. But neither approaches date night material. Typical “date movies” have fallen on hard times—any sprawling ensemble cast running around aimlessly during a second-rate holiday will do!—and their tropes should be avoided.
But I wonder why gay relationship dramas have to be so dramatic, so fraught with abuse and uncured heartbreak. The divide is especially striking given the assimilation of gay marriage and culture into the mainstream. Maybe the edge seen in these movies is a valid reminder that gay struggles are unique and the road unclear, or a battle cry against full integration. Straight couples are vulnerable to these indignities too, and the fact that so few movies depict unglamorously flawed hetero romances implies a fake sheen in mainstream movies more than excessive self-conscious grit in gay indies.
You can laud Weekend and KTLO for their honesty or take issue with their somewhat cynical realism. You can also wish for an antidote to gay gloom, one that doesn’t involve a sexual scavenger hunt timed to Veteran’s day or Kate Hudson.