Touched with Fire (Roadside Attractions, R)

While somewhat flawed Touched with Fire is still worth seeing.


Though not an adaptation, the new film Touched with Fire takes its name from Kay Redfield Jamison’s nonfiction book Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament. In the film, we primarily follow Carla (Katie Holmes), a bipolar poet who is in and out of treatment centers, and who at one of these centers first encounters Marco (Luke Kirby), another poet with bipolar. Carla and Marco find kindred spirits in one another, but, this film isn’t exactly about that. You know how some friends bring out the worst in you and/or your other friends, like there’s one friend in your group who’s good at goading people into drinking too much or getting themselves into some sort of trouble—like they’re the designated “bad influence” friend? That’s how Carla and Marco operate with one another, making the peaks and valleys of their bipolar disorders that much more severe. But, even that doesn’t entirely encompass what Touched with Fire does, as it also insightfully looks into how having bipolar disorder can affect the artistic process, with the implication that artists are aided by bipolar in that the condition allows them to feel deeper. (An example the film often returns to is the painting “The Starry Night” by Vincent Van Gogh, a bipolar sufferer himself whose art was arguably all the better for it.)

These are interesting questions, and Touched with Fire, for the most part, navigates them deftly. It takes a turn in its stance on the “bipolar helps artists” argument by the end of the film, to at least some degree. While part of me is inclined to grouse that I like the film’s earlier thesis better, it’s hard to debate it, as the film’s writer/director, Paul Dalio, himself has bipolar.

Touched with Fire had a single screening at the St. Louis International Film Festival last November, which screening Mr. Dalio attended. After finding the film mostly intellectually interesting, only to be let down by the ending, I was pleased to find that the Q & A after the film with Dalio was as useful and interesting as the film was at its best—enough so to make me wish that Dalio would only screen the film when he himself was present, like what Crispin Glover does with his films. But it isn’t just the insight into the nature of bipolar that makes Dalio a worthy filmmaker to tackle this material; he’s an NYU grad, which is, of course, one of the best film schools in the country, and thanks to contacts he made there, none other than Spike Lee came on as executive producer for this film. There’s no noticeable link between Touched with Fire and Lee’s oeuvre apart from NYU, so if you’re a fan of Spike’s that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’d like this film. Still, his name being on it will help it get noticed by a crowd that likely otherwise wouldn’t see it, which is good, as while somewhat flawed Touched with Fire is still worth seeing. | Pete Timmermann


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