Of all the barriers that rise up between people--sex, race, class, money, education, geography--private pain is one of the most isolating. And pain, along with the other six, is a prominent subject of John Sayles’ “Passion Fish” (AMC Century 14).
“Passion Fish” is about paraplegic white ex-TV soap star May-Alice (Mary McDonnell) and her black nurse Chantelle, a recovering drug addict (Alfre Woodard), and though that may sound like soap-opera material, Sayles doesn’t sink into any traps of bathos. The movie’s setting is Cajun country, Louisiana, and the unbuttoned region, with its somnolent heat, exotic swampland and ragingly spicy music and food, helps Sayles play against the sadder currents.
His light, bantering tone defuses the maudlin. He keeps mocking the very idea of soap opera, setting it up as the comic echo of his dramatic plot. May-Alice’s weepy program is playing in the hospital when her private hell commences and later, the soap opera world keeps pursuing her, in the person of emissaries from her show. Sayles keeps bringing in these cliche TV undercurrents, perhaps partially to let us know he won’t succumb.
Otherwise, soap opera might seem the seedbed of this film’s dramatic personae: the movie’s small-town Southern nerds running to the city; catty friends named Precious; alcoholic gay cousins; dashing would-be lovers, errant daughters and stern fathers. By giving his tale the breezy veneer of romantic comedy, Sayles signals his defiance of pop myth. He throws the focus back on the women, idealizes their toughness rather than their vulnerability.
As you’d expect from Sayles, one of the most unabashedly left-wing American filmmakers to emerge in the ‘80s, this is a film with a specific, diamond-hard political vision. It’s an anti-Reagan-era story, cynical about seductive success, money and the inevitability and “cuteness” of class distinctions.
Sayles gives us life after the dreams have died, shows us physical disability as only another territory, another border to be crossed.
“Passion Fish” isn’t as impressive as Sayles’ last movie, the iconoclastic ensemble saga “City of Hope.” Like his 1983 lesbian love story, “Lianna,” it’s something of a career breather: a simpler, more tightly focused personal drama, in which this almost self-consciously masculine director goes deliberately into more feminine territory, widening his perspective and honing his reflexes.
His style stays tough and terse, and that attitude has dividends, especially for McDonnell and Woodard.
It’s a critical cliche to talk about Oscar-worthy performances in the flood of year-end candidates, but Woodard and McDonnell deserve a look--from everybody. In the movie, the two show us a developing love and respect that is subterranean, almost unspoken, seeping up beneath a contentious surface. They have the easy, emotion-stretching mastery and limber spontaneity that marks the best screen acting.
Woodard gets all her character’s false insouciance, confusion, tenacity and sense of displacement and McDonnell gets more. She plunges us into the horrific vertigo of a woman stripped of certitudes, falling into drunken self-indulgence and then fighting back up. McDonnell got her screen debut in Sayles’ labor drama “Matewan” and her breakthrough in the liberal Western “Dances With Wolves,” but she does her best screen acting here: pure as light, sharp and hard as a knife. There’s self-pity in the character, but never in the acting.
Or in the movie. The women we see here aren’t in the worst possible situation. They’re living on a gorgeous stretch of lakefront property, with few pressing financial worries and some dashing men--a local, married Cajun boatman (David Strathairn) and a roguish zydeco musician (Vondie Curtis-Hall) to court them. But still, the romance has a harder edge.
Sayles may be one of the prime poet-proponents of the work ethic in American movies right now, and in “Passion Fish” (MPAA-rated R for language and adult situations), he suggests that in love, as in life, you have to sweat for your pleasures as much as to master your pain. This is a love story without tears, a soap opera with no soap, a political fable about survivors in the ruins of the reign of greed.
Mary McDonnell: May-Alice
Alfre Woodard: Chantelle
David Strathairn: Rennie
Vondie Curtis-Hall: Sugar
A Miramax Film release. Director/screenplay/editor John Sayles. Producers Sarah Green, Maggie Renzi. Executive producer John Sloss. Cinematographer Roger Deakins. Costumes Cynthia Flynt. Music Mason Daring. Production design Dan Bishop. Running time: 2 hours, 16 minutes.
MPAA-rated R (for strong language and adult situations).