Bipolar disorder has afflicted a number of everyday characters in film, from Mark Ruffalo’s struggling dad in Infinitely Polar Bear to the ballroom dancing Bradley Cooper in Silver Linings Playbook. But the illness seems to strike the creative class the hardest, with the highs and lows often romanticized on screen as an exchange, of sorts, for an artist’s gift. Look at the biopics available about Virginia Woolf, Jackson Pollock, Ludwig van Beethoven to watch any number of “tortured” artists at work.
Touched with Fire, writer-director-composer Paul Dalio’s feature debut (and executive produced by his NYU mentor Spike Lee), is the latest film to explore creativity and mental illness. Originally titled Mania Days, the film follows a tempestuous relationship between two bipolar poets, Carla (Katie Holmes) and Marco (Luke Kirby), whose talents are more quotidian than Keatsian.
They meet during a group therapy session at a residential mental health facility and immediately dislike each other. The two warm up once they discover common interests in art and poetry. Rather than making the romance the central story, Dalio, who has firsthand experience with bipolar disorder, keeps the focus on the characters’ journeys with the illness. Dalio also manages to keep Touched with Fire (mostly) away from the melodrama, though he seems less adept at subtext and subtlety. The multiple references to Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night (1889), a painting that depicts the view from the artist’s room in an asylum, become tiresome.
Touched with Fire is at its most successful when Dalio attempts to articulate the bipolar mind. Holmes delivers a powerfully restrained performance as a character trying to temper her manic movements and rapid-fire speech, though her countenance belies a racing psyche. Kirby’s Marco, a rhymer and street poet, is pure frenetic energy, talking nonstop about nothing and everything. It’s in these early scenes that Dalio and director of photography Kristina Nikolova use the camera to dizzying and claustrophobic effect: The unsteady and breakneck maneuvers become almost experiential for the viewer.
In the hospital, the two meet surreptitiously in the art room at night. They begin to fuel the other’s mania, and it’s here that Dalio wisely employs swirling projections of Starry Night to illustrate their reality. Carla and Marco are convinced they are not from this planet, and they both want to return home. They build a transport device from the art room’s chairs, silverware and Play-Doh. Their doctors and parents (who are almost too compassionate) must now separate them. The depression that follows is the inverse of their highest highs, and the film’s changing color palette, now steeped in gray, reflects their inner states.
The two eventually reunite against the wishes of their families and the advice of their doctors, but Carla and Marco are adults, so they choose each other and choose to foster their creativity—by going off their medication. Touched with Fire wallows in bathos during its final act, as the lovers embark on a random road trip that’s reminiscent of Drew Barrymore and Chris O’Donnell in Mad Love.
Two other scenes in the final third feel out of step with the rest of the film. One sequence between Carla, Marco and their parents feels all too staged, despite the notable performances by Bruce Altman and Christine Lahti as Carla’s parents and Griffin Dunne as Marco’s father. In the other odd scene, author and psychologist Kay Jamison meets Marco and Carla for coffee, and proceeds to gently lecture Marco how medication won’t strip him of his creativity. We find out later that Jamison wrote the book Touched with Fire, a medical text that was among the first to examine the correlation between artistic genius and bipolarism. Jamison’s work helped Dalio come to terms with his own illness. Marco, like Dalio, is a fan of the book and references it often in conversation with Carla, but bringing in the author for explanations isn’t necessary.
Dalio’s film is thought-provoking, with his characters offering different perspectives on bipolar disorder. When Marco asks another character to “think about if you’d medicated van Gogh,” Touched with Fire refuses a simple conclusion. With captivating performances by Kirby, Holmes and the supporting cast, Dalio has created a complex portrait of those caught in the push-pull between the illness and the desire for a “normal life”—whatever that may be for people like Carla and Marco.
Director: Paul Dalio
Writer: Paul Dalio
Starring: Katie Holmes, Luke Kirby, Griffin Dunne, Bruce Altman, Christine Lahti
Release Date: Feb. 12 in New York and Los Angeles, Feb. 19 nationwide
Christine N. Ziemba is a Los Angeles-based freelance pop culture writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her on Twitter.