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Film Review: 'Touched With Fire'

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Katie Holmes and Luke Kirby in Paul Dalio’s Touched With Fire. Courtesy of Roadside Attractions.

Touched With Fire is a compelling film about two young people with bipolar disorder who meet in a psychiatric hospital and fall in love. Carla, played by Katie Holmes, is a published poet. Marco (Luke Kirby), is a less successful but equally gifted writer and artist who, when manic, believes he is from the moon and calls himself  “Luna.” The couple’s shared illness both strengthens their bond and threatens to destroy it as they struggle to manage their symptoms, disagree about the benefits of medication and try to cope with their families’ concerns about their relationship.

Written and directed by Paul Dalio, the film draws on his personal history of living with bipolar disorder. Dalio focuses heavily on the exceptional creativity that often goes hand-in-hand with the illness, and how the fear of losing that spark drives some with bipolar disorder to resist—or stop taking-- medication.

Marco, especially, sees his bipolar disorder as a gift and doesn’t want to lose his intense emotions and mania. “I don’t think it’s such a bad thing to feel life with the deepest emotion,” he says in a scene with his father (Griffin Dunne) and Carla’s parents (Christine Lahti and Bruce Altman).

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Luke Kirby and Katie Holmes in Paul Dalio’s Touched With Fire. Photo by Joey Kuhn.

Both Holmes and Kirby bring their characters to life with strong, realistic performances. When they aren’t experiencing a manic episode or the crushing depression that always follows, they come across as normal, rational people.

During their hospital stay, Marco and Carla are separated after working themselves up from mild mania into a full-blown, delusional frenzy. After being released, they both slide into a deep depression. Using eerie music in a dark, slow motion, dream-like sequence with an underwater feel, Dalio succeeds in conveying the numb, disconnected-from-the world sensation that washes over Carla and Marco.

Less convincing is the way they reconnect when the hospital staff refuses to help them get in touch with each other. (While sitting in the waiting room, Carla finds a book they read together with a message from Marco to meet her in front of a Vincent Van Gogh painting in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

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Luke Kirby and Katie Holmes in Paul Dalio’s Touched With Fire. Photo by Joey Kuhn.

When the reunited couple fails to persuade their parents that they can make their relationship work, they dump their meds in a fountain and embark on a manic adventure. At first, they’re riding high on euphoria and filling notebooks with poetry. But eventually their escapade ends in near disaster. Carla’s pregnancy further tests their love and attitudes towards their illness.

Touched With Fire’s title comes from the book of the same name by prominent psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison, who also has bipolar disorder. Jamison’s book explores the link between creativity and the illness that artistic geniuses including Van Gogh, Emily Dickinson, Jackson Pollack and Tchaikovsky are believed to have had.  

Van Gogh—whom Marco idolizes—is referenced several times in the movie. Jamison is also mentioned and appears in a short but powerful cameo. During a meeting arranged by Carla, she tries to convince a manic Marco that medication has made her happier without dulling her creativity.   

Although there are a few scenes that don’t quite work in Touched With Fire, and some confusing lapses in time, overall the film delivers a convincing and moving portrayal of what it’s like to live with bipolar disorder.

Touched With Fire is now playing in theaters.