The highest highs and the lowest lows of human emotion have long been the stuff of cinema. So it’s no real surprise to see the arrival of “Touched With Fire,” filmmaker Paul Dalio’s semi-autobiographical feature debut about the initially destructive but ultimately healing relationship between two young poets hospitalized for bipolar disorder. What is a different, though, in a season that has already produced such explorations of manic-depression as “Infinitely Polar Bear” and “I Smile Back” — and that will soon bring yet another in the fact-based drama “The Dark Horse” — is that the filmmaker himself has bipolar disorder.
According to the 36-year-old director, who was diagnosed with the condition in his 20s, films about manic-depression, while well-meaning, too often look at the disorder from the point of view of friends and family members, rather than through the eyes of those actually living with the illness.
“It frustrates me,” says Dalio, “when the filmmaker isn’t aware of how displaying them in this way — from the outside — might affect the way in which the public sees them. That is to say, very easily, in a negative light.”
Although the film pulls no punches about the real dangers of untreated manic-depression — for example, the 25-percent suicide rate — it also attempts to make palpable the addictive allure of the manic highs. It’s easy to understand why someone, especially in a creative field, might not want to give up that rush for the flattened, even suppressed emotions that sometimes result from medication.
Dalio sat down recently to talk about the film, along with Kay Redfield Jamison, a professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University whose book about the link between creativity and manic-depression lends the film its title. Alluding to a line from the Stephen Spender poem “The Truly Great,” Jamison’s “Touched With Fire” profiles several bipolar artists, including Vincent van Gogh and Virginia Woolf. According to Jamison — who, like Dalio, is bipolar, and who appears in a cameo as herself in the film — “Touched” is a refreshing departure from previous attempts to grapple with the subject. All too often, she says, movies tend to be “melodramatic, condescending, patronizing, idiotic, glamorizing and/or demonizing,” not just of patients, but of doctors and patients’ families.
In other words, the stereotypical manic-depressive of a Hollywood film is a two-dimensional caricature: either a drooling clown or a doomed, Byronic antihero, with nothing in between. Like a dose of cinematic lithium, this movie means to balance those extremes.
“The purpose of the film,” Dalio says, “is for people to see through the eyes of someone with bipolar, to look through their bloodshot eyes and to see that the most beloved image of a sky” — van Gogh’s “The Starry Night” — was, in fact, seen through van Gogh’s window at the asylum of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, where he was a patient in 1889 and 1890. If audiences can appreciate the beauty in that intense image, Dalio says, “hopefully they won’t be afraid of the lunatic homeless person on the street. They will see the beauty in him. And those who have [bipolar disorder] will be proud of their so-called disorder.” Van Gogh’s painting is a kind of leitmotif throughout the film, even materializing as a literal hallucination by the main characters.
A graduate of New York University’s film school, where he studied under director Spike Lee, Dalio says his first instinct was never to mine his own experience. Throughout his studies, he was medicated to such a degree that he felt nothing.
“I was utterly unable to write from within,” he says. Rather, Dalio’s choice for a “safe, commercial debut” was something he describes, with a straight face, as a “Russian Mafia film, kind of a cross between ‘The Lion King,’ ‘Hamlet’ and ‘The Godfather.’ ”
Fortunately, Lee, who has a reputation for mentoring — and sometimes executive-producing the work of — former students, took one look at that screenplay and told Dalio, “This Mafia movie is a piece of crap,” Dalio recalls. Although Lee subsequently agreed to sign on as executive producer of a different script — a rap musical — that collaboration never bore fruit either. Eventually Dalio and Lee agreed to work together on “Touched With Fire” after Dalio’s wife, “Touched” cinematographer Kristina Nikolova, insisted that Dalio stop messing around and get personal.
“She was like, ‘Look, this is your experience with bipolar, your experience of hell,’ ” Dalio says. “I hadn’t even written anything at the time. It was just an idea. But she said she wanted something that we could make together. I said, ‘Okay. How about a crazy love story about two people who meet in the hospital and make each other even more crazy?’ She was like, ‘You have to do that film.’ ”
It is the central love story, Dalio believes, that enables audiences to relate to the film’s somewhat unhinged protagonists, Marco (Luke Kirby) and Carla (Katie Holmes), despite their shared madness.
“This is not clinical and dry, the way it’s portrayed. It was first and foremost important to tell the love story,” he says. “Their emotions happen to be breaking outside the boundaries of what we call sanity, but when that emotion takes the form of love, that invites the audience in. Can you love too much? I don’t know. Here, it’s clearly more than what most people would say is appropriate or sane. but at least it’s human. It’s recognizable.”
Our perceptions of mental illness are fluid, depending on its presentation in popular culture, says Dalio, citing research by the Harmony Institute, a research organization that studies the social impact of media. “If a plane goes down because there was a dangerously mentally ill person on board, it goes one way,” Dalio says. “If there’s a funny movie about a mentally ill person, it goes the other.”
Dalio says he hopes “Touched” occupies a middle ground between those two extremes. Ultimately, it must be judged as a movie, not as a manifesto. In other words, it had better be entertaining, as well as eye-opening.
There are many humorous moments in the film, as when a patient (played by Dalio) tries to sweet-talk his way into getting the stimulant Adderall from the nurse at the dispensary.
“It’s important to remember that bipolar is not all dark, and it’s not all light,” Dalio says. “A lot of these people become super funny in the hospital, particularly when they’re making fun of their doctors.”
Touched With Fire (R, 104 minutes). At area theaters.