Film Review – Touched With Fire
Touched With Fire
Writer/director Paul Dalio’s Touched With Fire (2015) attempts to cover a lot of issues, but by doing so doesn’t say much about any of them. Is it a tale about manic depression? Is it a love story between two similar characters? Is it about the possibilities of creative art? Dalio shows us beautiful images with accompanying dialogue that’s supposed to have a kind of deeper meaning, but instead comes off as ham fisted and self-indulgent.
Here is an instance where a filmmaker’s material is so excessive that it borders on the wrong side of pretentiousness. Every moment, every line, and every scene pounds its ideas in with a hammer, and anyone who isn’t along for the ride simply “doesn’t get it.” The trivia section of IMDb says that this was based on Dalio’s life, I’m assuming in regards to manic depression. I commend him for tackling a subject that so clearly hits a personal place, but all the extra bits muddle the overall effect.
For example: Marco (Luke Kirby) suffers from bipolar disorder. This causes him to quit his job, make a mess of his apartment, rename himself “Luna,” and spend time sitting on the top of buildings staring at the moon. He eventually enters a psychiatric hospital. Immediately, Marco rebels against the system, refusing to take his medication because he claims it will suppress his creativity. Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night is a recurring motif, and Marco argues that the painting would not have happened if Van Gogh were medicated. And yet, later in the plot, we see Marco’s condition putting himself and others at risk. So which is it: is this about an artist being free to explore their own capability, or is it about the dangers of a severe condition?
Neither is explored thoroughly enough to come to a definitive answer. Instead, Dalio’s script shoehorns in an unconvincing romance between Marco and fellow manic-depressive, Carla (Katie Holmes). Carla is a poet who started to suffer from her illness as a young adult, having her write poems incoherently and putting a strain between herself and her parents. By sheer accident, Carla ends up checking into the same hospital as Marco.
The romance between Marco and Carla make up the narrative core. Unfortunately it’s also the least convincing element. Katie Holmes and Luke Kirby deliver showy performances. Whether its sneaking away late at night to craft magical antennas out of forks, or running around spouting conspiracy theories about how the system is keeping them down, everything Carla and Marco talk about feels forced. It’s a “Hey, look at me!” kind of showcase, where exaggeration takes the place of believability. At one point they’re unstable, but when the screenplay needs them to be lovable they act completely in control. The further their relationship went, the worse it became as a narrative thread – to the point of mean-spirited melodrama. Manic depression is a tough illness, but here acts as a framework for a Romeo and Juliet style love story. By the time Carla and Marco start gallivanting around the city, or going on wild police chases ala Bonnie and Clyde, you start to question whether the story itself is suffering from flights of fancy.
Too bad, because Dalio exhibits skill as a craftsman. Along with writing and directing, he did the music, and was a co-editor. One could argue that taking all these responsibilities hints towards vanity, but this never occurred. In fact, Dalio shows a lot of promise in the way he constructs his film, especially with the editing. Sequences are pieced together very fast and loose. We’ll see certain events, and then revisit them later on. Time bounces back and forth liberally. Conversations are placed against past moments, allowing us to view them within an alternating context. Kristina Nikolova and Alexander Stanishev’s cinematography capture some gorgeous shots, especially when incorporating the Starry Night motif. There is talent at work here, and I sense that Dalio has the capability to make a truly captivating movie.
I just don’t think Touch With Fire is the one. It’s so uneven in tone and theme that any sense of “truth” is lost. The only moment that comes close is a cameo appearance by Kay Redfield Jamison, a real life psychologist who’s renowned for her study of bipolar disorder. Her book, Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament acts as the main source of inspiration for Carla and Marco (and Dalio himself, I presume). The few minutes we have with Jamison provide insights we don’t get anywhere else. But Dalio undercuts the effect by listing all of the artists mentioned in Jamison’s book right before the end credits, from Ernest Hemingway to Cole Porter and Edgar Allan Poe. What’s the purpose of including such a list, that there’s a thin line between having bipolar disorder and being a genius? Or is Dalio placing himself amongst the names of all these great artists?
A romance between people with mental illness can be done (see Silver Linings Playbook, 2012). Heck, the depiction doesn’t necessarily have to be accurate to work on screen (see One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, 1975). But there has to be something within the mania to pull us in dramatically and keep us invested. I didn’t feel that connection this time around.