This is not a film review. I haven't seen the film. I did read the book Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament by Kay Redfield Jamison some years ago because I was interested in seeing the links she found between manic-depression and creativity.
Art and madness have a history. But is the anguish and perhaps volatile intensity of the "artistic temperament" a characteristic of those who take that path, or a sign of a now-identifiable manic-depressive illness?
I have written before about the connections we make between creativity and mental illness, and also the ties to addictions.
The book is concerned with the biological foundations of the illness and examines it through the lives and works of artists including Lord Byron, Vincent Van Gogh, and Virginia Woolf.
The two poets love van Gogh's painting “The Starry Night” which they duplicate full wall-sized in their apartment. They consider van Gogh to be bipolar, and identify with that painting and its whirling euphoria that they also feel sometimes.
The film version (and film adaptations of non-fiction books are very different from those of fiction) also explores bipolar disorder (AKA manic depression) and creativity through the stories of Marco (Luke Kirby), a performance poet, and a quieter poet, Carla (Katie Holmes). They meet in a group-therapy session in a hospital.
The Times reviewer says that:
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.When people are in that manic phase of a bipolar cycle, they are euphoric and filled with promise and potential. This is when they are writing, composing or painting. They are on a natural high. This seems to be the focus of the film - and why not enjoy that high? It makes for a more enjoyable film than one about two poets in their depressive phase acting catatonic and suicidal.
It is tricky to have characters in a film that are poets, because then you need to have some of their poetry out there and deciding if a poet is really "a poet" is a subjective task. (The reviewer, Stephen Holden, feels their poetry is not very good.)
Dalio, the director, has written about his own struggles with bipolar disorder. And author Jamison plays a role in the film as the two poets visit her and she reassures them that staying on their medication won't destroy their creativity.
Several reviewers seem to feel the film is fair, though edging towards the view that the madness is okay because it feeds the creativity. Maybe poets all feel like they are a bit crazy - and perhaps some even enjoy and promote that image - but I think people in general think thay are a bit crazy in this label it and take a drug for it these days.
A review of Jamison's book in The New England Journal of Medicine (1993) notes that her "attention to the family trees of her subjects, showing how melancholia, irritability, insanity, and suicide affect many families yet leave in their wake immense contributions to our cultural heritage." Jamison sees a definite correlation, but "although mental illness is no prerequisite for creativity and at times may confer a definite disadvantage, both the manic and the depressive phases of bipolar illness may also offer something to augment the creative process."
Do we want the cure? She makes the point that although eradication of the genes responsible for the condition would prevent suffering and illness, it might also have a devastating effect on future creativity and genius.