Review by Lauryn Angel
Touched With Fire takes its name from Kay Redfield Jamison’s study of the connection between bipolar disorder and creative genius. The book is a constant presence in the film – Marco (Luke Kirby) calls the book his “bible” – and Jamison even appears in the film as herself. At its heart, the film deals with the same themes as the book, but Paul Dalio, who wrote and directed the film, weaves a fictional narrative around Jamison’s exploration of the connection.
When we are introduced to Carla Lucia (Katie Holmes) and Marco (Luke Kirby), both are having a manic episode. Carla, a published poet, is unable to sleep and becomes obsessed with discovering what “triggered” her bipolar disorder, convinced that this information would help her figure out who she is.
Marco – who prefers to be called by his rap name, Luna – is a different story. Instead of struggling against his diagnosis, embraces it as a gift that fuels his creativity. The two end up in the same hospital, and though they are antagonistic at first, quickly bond, eventually falling in love. Unfortunately, they fuel each other’s mania, causing Carla’s parents (Christine Lahti and Bruce Altman) and Marco’s father (Griffin Dunne) to question whether the couple wouldn’t be better off separated.
Beyond the issue of the relationship of creativity and bipolar disorder, Dalio’s film posits whether two people who are deemed mentally ill can successfully sustain a relationship. Carla seems to be the more functional of the pair – particularly after events cause her to embrace the stability offered by pharmaceuticals. Marco, however, remains adamant that medication will cause him to lose his creative fire, and his refusal causes him to be a continual danger to himself and others.
Carla and Marco’s emotions become visceral for the viewer. When they experience the joy of a full-on manic episode, we see how intoxicating their exuberance is. Dalio captures their mania in bright colors and lush settings. When the inevitable depression hits, Dalio shows us their emotions with aquatic blues and underwater imagery and sound effects.
Carla represents the side of finding balance through therapy and medication, whilst Marco steadfastly maintains that taking medication would destroy his creativity. At the end of the film, it’s unclear exactly which side Dalio takes on this issue, as both seem to have reached a functional stage. Throughout, Carla seems to be the more sympathetic character, but Dalio’s dedication of the film to the artists featured in Jamison’s book casts some ambiguity on this conclusion.