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The Girl Next Door

Review: ‘Touched With Fire,’ a Love Story Between Two Bipolar Poets

The New York Times
By Stephen Holden

Is there anything wrong with being a euphoric visionary artist? That question cuts to the essence of “Touched With Fire,” Paul Dalio’s extraordinarily sensitive, nonjudgmental exploration of bipolar disorder and creativity. When Marco (Luke Kirby) and Carla (Katie Holmes), poets with the condition also known as manic depression, meet at a group-therapy session in a mental hospital, their emotional combustion undercuts any available treatment.

Together, they adopt a you-and-me-against-the-world attitude and embark on a mind trip fueled by Marco’s science-fiction-worthy interpretation of the mystical connections among things. They build an impenetrable fantasy of themselves as displaced otherworldly beings and parents-to-be of a yet unborn miracle child.

The manic phase of a bipolar cycle often produces a sense of omnipotence and infinite possibility that can feel so wonderfully exciting that patients often stop taking their medication. “Touched With Fire” only tangentially deals with the depressive phase, when a patient can become catatonic and suicidal.

Mr. Dalio, who has written about his own personal struggles with bipolar disorder, has directed a film that flirts with madness (some would say dangerously) while not going over the edge. For a time, it almost seduces you into taking seriously the couple’s shared delusions. Any creative person who has had what might be a brainstorm, when the emotions veer into overdrive, and the mind and metabolism suddenly race, will understand the exalted, scary place in which Marco and Carla find themselves.

The movie is inspired by Kay Redfield Jamison’s 1993 book, “Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament.” Marco and Carla visit Ms. Jamison in the movie, and she reassures them that taking lithium hasn’t diminished her creativity. Although awkward, this scene, shoehorned into the film to be reassuring, crucially tilts a movie that might otherwise be misinterpreted as an invitation to embrace madness in the direction of medical common sense.

When first glimpsed, Marco, a rapper-poet and participant in poetry slams, has transferred all his books from their shelves to the floor of his loft to be closer to them. Carla is initially shown in a bookstore nervously reading from a published volume of her work. How talented are they? Not enough of their poetry is heard for anyone to form an opinion, but from the bits and pieces included in the movie, the answer is not very.

A central reference point in their fantasies is the van Gogh painting “The Starry Night.” When Marco and Carla eventually move in together, they paint the walls in an enlarged copy of that van Gogh masterpiece. Van Gogh, Marco assures Carla, was bipolar, as were any number of great painters and writers whose names appear in a long list at the end of the film.

“Touched With Fire” is an actor’s field day, and both Mr. Kirby and Ms. Holmes boldly meet the challenge of playing bright, high-strung artists struggling with depression. Like Jack Nicholson’s Randle Patrick McMurphy in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and Angelina Jolie’s Lisa in “Girl, Interrupted,” they can appear supersane until their daredevil behavior reveals them as recklessly, self-destructively messianic. Their shared mania slightly contorts their faces and glazes their eyes, especially Mr. Kirby’s. And when Marco and Carla flee to the woods and drive into a stream to escape a police car, you recognize the degree of their illness.

The film’s supporting roles are sympathetic considering how easily authority figures, whether parents or doctors, could have been portrayed as the repressive enemies of free expression. There is no conveniently monstrous Nurse Ratched to rebel against. Marco’s father (Griffin Dunne) and Carla’s parents (Christine Lahti and Bruce Altman) bend over backward to be caring and understanding.

The question of sanity and creativity is left unanswered. If you’re an artist, the self-centered belief in yourself as especially attuned to the truth is a leap of faith. You may have to be a little crazy to make that leap.

“Touched With Fire” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian) for language, a disturbing image, brief sexuality and drug use. Running time:< 1 hour 44 minutes.