Two poets with bipolar disorder fall in love in “Touched With Fire,” a drama that authentically conveys the highest highs and unbearable lows of mental illness.
Writer-director Paul Dalio was inspired by his own experiences with bipolar disorder to make the film, which is capably brought to life by Katie Holmes, playing Carla, and Luke Kirby as Marco. When the movie begins, each is in the midst of a psychotic episode. Marco has quit his job and spends his days and nights inside a cluttered apartment drawing pictures of the moon, while living off free milk from Starbucks and ketchup packets. (“The body can survive on ketchup alone,” he says, “at least until the apocalypse.”) Carla is afflicted with heavy, dark moods after flushing her medication down the toilet.
Both end up in the same hospital, where they meet during group therapy. Their relationship is combative at first, but they find common ground: Both are artists who fear pharmaceuticals will stifle their creativity. There’s something hopeful about two people suffering from the same illness, and finally finding someone who understands them. But their union also can verge on the dangerous, as they drive each other into increasingly manic states. After the two hatch a plan, during late-night meet-ups, to teleport to the moon — where they believe they belong — the hospital separates them. It’s for their own good, a doctor reasons. But Marco and Carla refuse to be kept apart.
The movie excels at expressing the painful realities of bipolar disorder, especially when it comes to the families who care for sick relatives. Griffin Dunne plays Marco’s father with a forlorn resignation, and Christine Lahti, as Carla’s mom, channels the desperate fear of a mother who has been fretting over her daughter’s well-being for more than a decade. Both have been beaten down by their children’s illness, and are at a loss for how to help.
But the movie also catapults the audience into the mind of a bipolar person, with quick-cut montages and layers of dialogue that unfold simultaneously, like so many voices inside a sick person’s head.
“Touched With Fire” also reminds us that countless creative geniuses have been afflicted. The movie shares a title with the book “Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament” by John Hopkins professor of psychiatry Kay Jamison, who has written an exploration of those great minds. Marco misguidedly uses her book as an excuse to keep himself off drugs, though he makes a fair point when he wonders if the world would have been better if Vincent van Gogh had been medicated.
“Touched With Fire” is by no means a perfect film. The production values and melodrama sometimes seem better suited for a small-screen movie. But the drama deserves points for its measured, realistic view of mental illness. That’s something we don’t see very often.
R. At Bow Tie Harbour 9 and Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains strong language, disturbing images and brief sexuality. 104 minutes.