Touched with Fire

Today I’m reviewing the movie Touched with Fire, which I just watched for the first time recently.

Touched with Fire is about two bipolar poets, Marco and Carla, who fall in love while staying in the same ward of a mental hospital.  They continue their relationship for over a year, even after the mental hospital, despite everyone trying to pull them apart, but this is not a happy love story.  Rather, it is meant to portray the dysfunction inherent in a mutually bipolar relationship.

As someone with bipolar disorder myself – and as a musician and poet – I liked this movie because it was unusual.  Most movies look at bipolar from the outside: its unexplained violence and strangeness as people with it interact with supposedly “sane” people.  Most movies try to play up the inexplicable, fearful factor.  Their audience is “the sane.”

This movie looked at bipolar from the inside: the madness continues to be seen as madness, but the movie strives for understanding between bipolar people, rather than focusing on judgment and fear from the outside world.  You understand why the bipolar characters do what they do, even while you realize they’re mentally unstable.  And the bipolar people are capable of kindness and love toward other people and toward one another, even as a bipolar couple continues to be unhealthy.  The audience is “everyone.”

Touched with Fire is a compassionate look at bipolar disorder and how it behaves in families, in couple situations, and between both “sane” and bipolar people.

For example, during depressive scenes there is an all-consuming silence, while during manic scenes there is heavenly, lyrical music.  There are lots of little artistic choices like that throughout the movie, along with the delusional grandeur of art amid the enormous creativity of mania more inside the plot.  So there is subtle artistry embedded within the movie, but then also overt, grand artistry between the bipolar characters.  Everything is elevated for them to an extended plane.

The bipolar characters’ delusions are explained, which I thought was a really nice touch.  Every mentally ill person latches onto something, and for these two people it’s a feeling of never quite belonging in society, which inflates into a delusion in which they are aliens who have to die to get back to their own planet.  They feed off of each other in a deeply unhealthy but realistic way.

There is in fact an immediate unhealthy connection between Marco and Carla.  Some people might complain that there was no conceivable explanation for why they got together.  I would argue that’s the point.  That’s what it feels like to connect with someone or something during mania.

Both people bring something unhealthy to the relationship.  Marco doesn’t see bipolar as a limiter, yet is willingly immersed in it to the point where he thinks meds “interfere with his creativity” – a common bipolar artist thought.  Meanwhile, Carla sees everything about being bipolar as dark and dreary to the point where she considers bipolar people a “mistake” of biology and thinks the illness fundamentally changes who she is.

The movie managed to balance evenly the love between the two people with the mania between the two people – there was a subtle but noticeable difference.  For example, they walk to a fountain hand in hand – love.  They throw their meds into the (highly public) fountain – crosses the line into mania.

The arguments with their families were great – a perfect representation of the mentally ill interacting with the mentally sane.  The parents don’t understand and make resented executive decisions that have the children freaking out, yet the mentally ill children are overly sensitive to signals of rejection and indicators that they’re unwanted for being what society calls “crazy.”

My only complaint would be that it was hinted Carla had alcoholism, but nothing was ever really done with that.  I would have liked to see more of how addiction interacts with bipolar disorder.

I think bipolar-with-bipolar relationships are by their very nature unhealthy, so I agreed with the premise of this movie.  I make the metaphor that it’s like with anyone.  In astrology, for example, they always give you the advice never to date yourself – your own type.  It’s asking for trouble.  Dating advice from the ancients.  And that is especially the case with two people dating who both have bipolar disorder.

I can see why it’s appealing.  I can connect with fellow bipolar people in a way that I can with no one else.  Does that make it healthy for me to date a fellow bipolar person?  No.  Our negativities would feed off of each other.  And that’s what this movie is trying to portray.

I think this movie gave a lot of good messages – that friendship between bipolar people is good but romance or living together might not be, and that while meds can seem limiting at first over the long run they actually improve the person’s cognitive ability instead of decreasing their creativity.

I guess the overall feeling I was left with – was not like with most bipolar movies I’ve watched.  Instead of feeling judged or studied from the outside, this movie felt like a love letter to bipolar people, and it even had as happy an ending as I could have hoped for.  I was left with an understood, and emotional but contented, feeling upon finishing.

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