It’s not easy to depict the complicated relationship between mental illness and the creation of art in a way that doesn’t either trivialize the suffering caused by the former or flatten the complicated interplay between the two into a trite story line. That was the task faced by Paul Dalio, the writer and director of Touched With Fire, a new film starring Katie Holmes and Luke Kirby as Carla and Marco, a pair of bipolar poets who fall in love.
On Wednesday night I attended the film’s New York premiere, and while I’m going to leave the full-blown reviews to the professional critic — I thought the film walked above the line pretty effectively, but for what it’s worth my viewing partner disagreed — two scenes really jumped out at me for how powerfully they highlighted certain issues about mental illness and identity. (Spoiler warning, I guess, though these scenes occur very early on, and revealing them doesn’t give away much.)
Early in the film, Carla, played by Katie Holmes, is in the midst of what feels, to the viewer, like the start of a manic episode. She shows up late at night at her mom’s house and asks to go through photo albums — a request her mom finds a bit alarming. Carla explains that she wants to figure out exactly what happened that led her bipolar disorder to manifest itself. There must have been some moment, some trigger. Her mom insists that isn’t the case: This was going to happen no matter what. Let’s go to your psychiatrist tomorrow, she says — we can look through your file and try to see if that will tell us anything.
Carla can’t wait that long, so she goes directly to the hospital and ends up meeting with her psychiatrist to go over the file. Carla explains to her that whatever happened must have happened after college, because during college she was doing great: She had plenty of friends, and she partied all the time without her lifestyle affecting how prolific she was as a poet (the implication being that she’s now having trouble creating poetry). Her doctor responds that she’s misinterpreting things: That was the illness. It was the mania that allowed her to live in what felt like such a rewarding manner during college.
These ideas cut to the core of what it means to live with an illness for years and years. Where does your illness end and your “real” identity begin? What does it mean when a clinician tells you that experiences you cherish as an important part of who you are were “caused” by the illness — not by, well, whatever part of you isn’t ill? It’s fascinating and heartbreaking to imagine being told that, in a sense, certain things you cherish don’t really belong to you — they belong to your illness. It’s also fascinating and heartbreaking to imagine, from a bipolar person’s perspective, how the salience of your illness waxes and wanes. In the film, when Carla and Marco are sharing manic episodes, it doesn’t feel to them like their illness is controlling them. It feels like a door has opened up, and they finally have access to how wonderful life is.
All of which is a long-winded way of saying that people — particularly those who, unlike myself, have firsthand experience with bipolar disorder — are going to have a lot of strong feelings about Touched With Fire. It’s out tomorrow, so I’m looking forward to learning from others’ reactions.