“Touched With Fire,” the brilliant debut from Tisch alumnus Paul Dalio, gets a lot of its power from combining two common cinematic views of mental illness. The first view, that of films like “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Donnie Darko,” essentially sides with the victim as a stigmatized rebel from society. The second kind, that of “Silver Linings Playbook” and “Still Alice,” focuses on the negative effects of the illness on the sufferer and those around them. It is a question of seeing characters as they see themselves or as others do. “Touched With Fire” succeeds brilliantly at both.
The film follows Carla (Katie Holmes), a struggling poet, who begins the film by getting laughed out of a slam reading. Marco (Luke Kirby) is having somewhat more success as a rapper. Both of them, it becomes clear, are bipolar and have been hospitalized at various points in their lives. They are hospitalized again after experiencing manic episodes, and the two happen to meet and connect through their love of poetry. Carla and Marco form a relationship that brings out all that is good and bad about being bipolar.
Both of the leads do excellent work. As Carla, Holmes is fragile, always trying to find a more peaceful existence. As Marco, Kirby is much less stable, devoting himself to the idea that his condition is as much a gift as it is a curse.
The look of the film captures both sides of bipolar disorder. When they are happy together and on top of the world, the movie has a kind of beauty reminiscent of Terrence Malick. Everything they pass, from gardens to houses to ordinary streets seem to be magic. When they come down from their highs, depression is shown in an upsetting, dreary fashion, which owes a debt to Lars Von Trier.
The way that the leads’ disorder hurts them and those around them is shown in meticulous detail. Their parents are devoted to them, even as they endure constant insults and condescension from their children. Carla and Marco are never able to live anything like a normal life, abandoning every job they get. At crucial points, Marco acts in a way that legitimately endangers his life, and he becomes difficult to sympathize with as he resists all medication.
The movie is named after a book, one with which Marco becomes obsessed. The book is about artists, from Vincent van Gogh to William Faulkner, who struggled with bipolar disorder. Allusions to van Gogh fill the movie, with Marco and Carla at one point walking through a room with a giant illuminated image of Starry Night. The movie asks whether the suffering of bipolar disorder is worth the art it produces. To ask this without an implied answer takes both bravery and control, which makes Dalio an exciting new talent.
“Touched with Fire” is currently showing at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema on Houston Street.
Email Tony Schwab at [email protected]