We saw four movies on Friday at the New Hampshire Film Festival, and this was Sean’s favourite of the bunch. Starring Katie Holmes and Luke Kirby as two bipolar poets who meet in group therapy while unhappily committed to a psychiatric ward, they feed each other’s mania and explore the possibility that maybe their illness is actually a gift.
The movie derives its name from the book that examines the relationship between bipolar disorder and creativity, citing lots of artistic minds assessed as probably having suffered this or a similar disorder: Ernest Hemingway, Edvard Munch, Jackson Pollock, and Vincent van Gogh, to name a few.
Two things about bipolar disorder:
- It’s a serious disease. But it is a disease, and like many diseases, it can be managed with lifestyle choices and medication. It used to be called manic-depression but those two moods are misleading because not everyone experiences them like they’re often depicted in the movies. The mania is not always energizedfun – some people get very irritable and paranoid during their manic phases. And other people will be angry and violent during the down phase, rather than depressed and sad. Medication and psychotherapy help a lot, but just like a diabetes, it’s a hard illness to manage. It’s a life-long commitment, and they’ve got the disease actively working against them at times – often just when they’re doing well, it starts whispering that they’re fine, they can get off the meds. That’s not really the case, but since the medication can make people feel sluggish or not quite like themselves, it’s really difficult to battle against those thoughts. And just like someone with heart disease who knows darn well they should cut down on red meat and stress, people who suffer with bipolar disorder can relapse, but for some reason we’re always harder on people with mental illness compared to other bodily illnesses. Bipolar disorder doesn’t get cured, but I have known people to live happy lives with it. I really salute them because it takes a lot of care and diligence and support.
- There does seem to be some kind of link between bipolar disorder and genius\creativity. I can’t tell you what that means because science has no fucking clue what it means. I can tell you that it doesn’t guarantee anything, and it isn’t true of everyone with bipolar disorder, or even most. But during the manic episodes, people have racing thoughts that can lead to all kinds of ideas and links and thinking outside the box. If you are a writer or musician who gets inspired and does your best work during this phase, think about what it means to have to give it up in order to “get well.”
So that’s what this movie explores: that fine line between wanting to get well, but also wanting to keep the aspects of the disorder that make you unique. Carla and Marco, in the movie, are both poets of a sort, and are transfixed by this sacrifice they’re being asked to make.
I am happy to report that this movie was not reckless. It did place value on medication, but it did it within a questioning context, which I think is important.
Let’s consider, for a moment, Vincent van Gogh. He’s one of the most acclaimed and famous artists ever. Was he bipolar? His “diagnosis” is only in retrospect since the disorder wasn’t even named or classified during his time. He certainly showed many of its dispositions. You know that during one of his “episodes” he mutilated his own ear, after which he checked himself into an asylum and spent there a fruitful year during which he painted many of his most prominent pieces, including the irises, his blue self-portrait, and this one, A Starry Night, which was the view from his asylum room (minus the bars on the window, of course). This is what a night sky looks like to a “sick” brain. Isn’t it something? The world, our culture, places great value on this remarkable painting, and yet it would not exist had he been “well.” Doesn’t that make you think?
On the other hand, manic episodes are often accompanied with impulsivity, and poor judgement; sometimes even psychosis. About half will experience delusions or hallucinations, which can lead to violence. And the higher the high, the lower the low. The depressive state can include feelings of sadness, anxiety, anger, guilt, self-loathing, helplessness, and morbid thoughts of suicide. You wouldn’t wish this part on your worst enemy, and it makes it tough to maintain the relationships and support network so crucial to health. Half of those suffering with bipolar disorder will attempt suicide or self-harm.
I valued this movie for asking the right questions, even if we don’t have all the answers. It felt like a pretty honest look at the disorder, the good and the bad, and the fallout that hits those that love them (Christine Lahti contributes a solid performance as a mother constantly on the brink), and I can see it being enlightening for audiences, and a good conversation starter for a disorder that’s often misunderstood.
This film was written and directed by Paul Dalio, who was going to school in the Graduate filmmaking program at NYU, where he was discovered by his professor, who just happened to be Spike Lee (Lee believed in the work so much that he’s the executive producer on this film). Dalio made this film after overcoming his own struggles with the disorder as a way of reconciling the beauty and horror that comes from it, and dedicated it his fellow suffering artists.