A cute but redundantly lyrical sanitarium romance.
Touched With Fire
Bipolar disorder is the common ground that brings two opposites-turned-soulmates together in Touched With Fire, a cute but redundantly lyrical sanitarium romance inspired by Kay Jamison’s book “Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament” and the real-life experiences of writer-director Paul Dalio. Carla (Katie Holmes) and Marco a.k.a Luna (Luke Kirby) are manic-depressive poets admitted to the same psychiatric hospital where they at first can’t stand each other (naturally) but soon form a tight bond as they indulge in their shared mania and protect each other from unenlightened oppressors. The creative energy that forms between them is explosive and romantic, but when they choose to start a family, their manic tendencies begins to put their future in danger. Meanwhile, their stubborn, disapproving parents threaten to tear them apart for good.
In several ways the movie ponders the relationship between bipolar disorder and art, from Marco often referencing the legendary work Van Gogh did while manic to the couple explaining to their parents how they absorb the world in a deeper, fuller, more vivid way than normal people are capable of, which allows them to express themselves freely and unfiltered. Dalio also represents the disorder visually, using off-balance camera moves and surrealistic imagery to reflect our heroes’ mindstate. On occasion, the symbolism can be a little too plainspoken: When the couple are unwillingly separated and forbidden to see each other, Carla returns to the waiting room where they first met; we feel she’s missing Marco already, but suddenly an apparition of him appears to further emphasize her longing. The sentiment is nice and the device fits the artistry theme, but it’s a little excessive.
Dalio, who’s dealt with manic depression in his life, used battle rap as an outlet, performing under the name Luna. We see much of his personal struggle in Marco (who also battle raps under the Luna moniker) and the film’s greatest strength is that it feels passionate and personal throughout, evidently pulled directly from pivotal points of life experience. If there’s an issue with how the film ponders mental health it’s in the final acts, when the story starts to feel too studied, overly saturated by the influence of Jamison’s thesis. It’s especially jarring when the author makes an appearance as herself, meeting with the couple to discuss the dulling effects medication may or may not have on the creative process.
Movie romances often live and die by the actors’ eyes: If we don’t see that thirst in their eyes, we ain’t buying it. Holmes and Kirby, thankfully, are convincing in their desire, particularly early on in the film when they’re sneaking away to the hospital library in the middle of the night, going on manic adventures through time and space, unlocking the mysteries of the universe with childlike glee. The adventure’s all in their heads, of course, but Dalio does a nice job of bringing us into their headspace, sprawling projected images of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” across the library walls to reflect the scope of the couple’s obsession. Moments like these, when Dalio’s visual style feels pitch-perfect, are magical.
On several occassions, Carla and Marco’s parents stage both planned and impromptu interventions, expressing insensitively their wish for the couple to stay far away from one another so as not to further enable their shared mania. The drama in these scenes sometimes works, but more often than not the confrontations feel too transparently educational, with the young actors essentially explaining their mental disorder for those of us in the audience who don’t understand it. Holmes is particularly good, though, at attempting to make the scenes feel natural with her facial expressions and subtle body movements.
When Carla and Marco are alone, running wild with the ecstasy of being unshackled from the doldrums of everyday life, Touched With Fire feels vital and flowing and engrossing. The filmmaking seems to dull, however, when the couple are on their meds and fall back down to earth. There’s no reason a film can’t stay cinematically interesting while still reflecting the internal repression of its characters and, unfortunately, coupled with the staged nature of the later dialogue, the sober segments of the story don’t quite hit home.