Cinapse Selects: PASSION FISH

John Sayles’ Louisiana-based film turns 25.

There’s a true sense of place to the works of John Sayles (one of my favorite directors). The location of each of his films is intrinsic to the plot: the foggy Irish waters in The Secret of Roan Inish, the Texas borderlands of Lone Star, the West Virginia mining town of Matewan, the Alaskan wilds in Limbo. His 1992 release, Passion Fish, dwells in a small, humid gulf town in Louisiana, where accents abound.

Mary McDonnell is May-Alice, a soap opera actress who moves back to her hometown after she is paralyzed in a freak accident. She begins the film with a sense of defeat, brittle and brash as she cycles through caretakers. When new health aide Chantelle (Alfre Woodard, Luke Cage) enters the picture, they come to a detente as they realize they are stuck with each other.

During their time together, layers are shed as the women become more frank with each other. Their relationship is the core of Passion Fish, as both Chantelle and May-Alice are at a point in their lives when they are forced to start over. Visitors from their past stop by (including Angela Bassett as one of May-Alice’s former soap opera co-stars). Two men from the parish — David Straithairn (who also appeared that year with McDonnell in Sneakers) as a charming Cajun handyman and Vondie Curtis-Hall (Chicago Hope) as a smooth-talking farrier — get drawn into their private world.

Shots by celebrated cinematographer Roger Deakins (Skyfall and Sicario among many others) add to the supernatural quality of a visit to the swamp or the romantic notion of a dream sequence. The scoring from frequent Sayles collaborator Mason Daring features a twangy guitar riff that can be jarring, a musical illustration of the changes forced on May-Alice.

Sayles, who wrote the screenplay and directed, explores how the forced intimacy of Chantelle and May-Alice’s shared living situation leads to something honest and healing for them both. Passion Fish is a quiet, hopeful film, and it’s one I turn to often.

Passion Fish is available on DVD (I don’t know if it’s currently streaming anywhere).

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