As anyone touched by any form of depression will tell you, medication is a daunting prospect. Anti-depressants often stunt a person’s emotional range in order to “normalise” their moods and behaviour. But as low as the lows can be, the highs can be euphoric and inspirational. Depression hovers over some of the world’s most creative minds like the miserable arse of a raincloud; check the sizable roster of artists listed in Kay Jamison’s Touched with Fire, which is compiled in its entirety at the end of Paul Dalio’s film of the same name.
Most of those artists – including Jamison and Dalio – are bipolar, which is something that carries more of a stigma than major depressive disorder (the one people mean when they simply say “depression”). It’s markedly less common for one thing, so it has a much weaker voice in popular culture; perhaps the best-known example of bipolar disorder in cinema is Silver Linings Playbook, directed by a man who isn’t bipolar. That film manages to portray the disorder without the condescension Hollywood is known for, but in most other depictions, bipolar equals insanity. With the help of NYU mentor Spike Lee, Dalio aims to change that with his directorial debut, Touched with Fire.
The film follows Carla (Katie Holmes) and Marco (Luke Kirby), two bipolar poets that meet during a hospital stint. Both feel at their best during their periods of mania, and begin a relationship while trying to buck their medication. Eventually, hospital staff and wary parents try to pry them apart, fearing a mutually destructive influence. Together, they spend much of the film trying to escape those who refuse to understand their situation because, as in life, people without depression never understand it.In the beginning, Dalio channels his belief that bipolar is an extrasensory gift of unbridled creativity; both leads make each other ridiculously happy, and seem poised to begin a joyous, well-functioning relationship. However, regardless of the film’s criticism of cruel parents and heartless authorities, Carla and Marco’s relationship does indeed become destructive and genuinely harmful.
Carla is the first to concede to medication, realising that bipolar isn’t something she can handle by herself; as Dalio attested in an autobiographical Huffington Post article, it can take years to harness the extended range of emotions provided by the disorder, and wrangle them into something manageable. Marco, on the other hand, wishes to completely surrender himself to the creativity he experiences during his manic stages; he becomes violent, angry, and uncooperative as a result. Dalio is brave enough to confess how harmful the disorder can be, while also highlighting the good it can provide in terms of personal inspiration.
Unfortunately, Dalio’s ambition is too indebted to portraying the experience of bipolar for Touched with Fire to work as an actual film. The aesthetic is very Tree of Life-era Malick, only less effective and even less sincere (and I haven’t been a fan of Malick for years); it doesn’t seem to fit Dalio as a filmmaker, as he shows much more promise in directing his actors than in technical wizardry. Far too often, Touched dives into an illustration of the bipolar experience, with hackneyed voiceover sequences and drifting imagery working like molasses for the pacing. Instead of enhancing the performances and emotions, it highlights the shortcomings in the screenplay, and steals attention from Katie Holmes’ otherwise formidable acting range.This isn’t to say that such sequences in Touched with Fire are not expressive, but at times, it feels as though you’re watching various different films haphazardly jumbled together. Dalio seems uncertain as to how his movie should work, or what should even be featured in it at all; with the references to Jamison and Van Gogh, it feels less like he’s wearing his heart on his sleeve, and more like he’s branding it onto bare flesh. The film hits a real low when Jamison herself turns up, and meets with Carla and Marco to discuss the way she tackled her bipolar disorder through medication. Clearly, Jamison isn’t an actress, so she delivers her lines like a talking head while Holmes and Luke Kirby continue their battle for Oscar nods. Worse yet, she articulates everything the film is trying to get at, which renders the narrative sacrifices and sluggish visual poetry annoyingly redundant.
Dalio’s heart is clearly in the right place, but his technique is an odd match between on-the-nose and cinematic purple prose. Still, inspirational moments are presented throughout Touched With Fire, such as the drive to twist depression into a positive thing, utilising the highs as sources of creative watering pools. Hopefully in the future, Dalio will find the confidence to develop these aspects into richer cinematic experiences.