In a scene in the new movie by American writer-director John Sayles, a group of actresses from a TV soap opera visit a former cast member recovering from an accident. The actress who has replaced her tells a wonderfully funny, convoluted story about how she finally landed a feature-film role, only to learn that it was a movie about space aliens in which she would have just one line—“I never asked for the anal probe.” The anecdote is a lazy, luxurious digression in Passion Fish, a movie that seems in no particular hurry to go anywhere. And, according to Sayles, it is the kind of scene that would never make it to the screen if he had to answer to a Hollywood studio.
Directed by John Sayles
“All the young executives are going to those screenwriting seminars,” he said in an interview last week, “and their formula is cut to the chase. My feeling is that if there is no chase, don’t cut to it. This is a movie where you have to spend time with the people and they have to spend time with each other.”
Set in the bayou swampland of southwest Louisiana, Passion Fish is a deliciously languid, slow-simmering gumbo of a film. It is about two women going through different forms of recovery. May-Alice (Mary McDonnell), a soap-opera star, is paralysed from the waist down after getting hit by a New York taxicab while on her way to get her legs waxed. Moving back to Louisiana, and into the deserted family home, she hires a live-in nurse named Chantelle (Alfre Woodard), who is trying to rebuild her own life after a battle with drug abuse.
Superficially, the premise has elements of a disease-of-the-week TV movie. But Passion Fish is, in fact, a sublime drama with a comic edge. “Both women have hit a dead end,” says Sayles. “You could extrapolate it to anyone whose life has not turned out the way they wanted it to.” And in that sense, Passion Fish echoes The Return of the Secaucus Seven (1980), the director’s first feature. A story of Sixties survivors reassessing their lives, it was a landmark for independent film-making.
Since then, Sayles has written and directed a diverse and distinctive body of work. In the
early 1980s he made whimsical movies about lesbianism (Lianna), high-school lovers (Baby It’s You) and a black extraterrestrial (The Brother from Another Planet). He followed them with two acclaimed historical dramas: Matewan (1986), the saga of a coal miners’ strike, and Eight Men Out(1987), the story of the 1919 Chicago Black Sox baseball scandal.
As well as working as a screenwriter-forhire, Sayles still finds time to write plays, short stories and novels. “It’s all storytelling to me,”
said Sayles. In 1991, he completed another movie, a sprawling urban epic called City of Hope, and published a novel, Los Gusanos, about Cuban exiles in Miami.
Passion Fish, meanwhile, grew from an idea that he had been incubating for years. In the 1970s, Sayles worked as an orderly in hospitals and nursing homes. “I remember being fascinated by the relationship I saw between patients and their caretakers,” he recalled. “It’s a kind of forced marriage. I carried the idea in my head for a long time, not sure whether it would
be a short story, a book or a movie.” A visit to Louisiana, he added, convinced him to make it a movie with a pronounced bayou setting.
The movie’s stars—McDonnell, Woodard and David Strathairn—have all worked with Sayles before. McDonnell, in fact, launched her screen career in Matewan and has since appeared in Hollywood movies including Dances With Wolves (1990) and Grand Canyon (1991). As the paraplegic May-Alice, she is an abrasive New Yorker who reacts to her fate with outrage, then bitterness. In Louisiana, she cultivates addictions to alcohol and TV but meets her match in the no-nonsense Chantelle, who calls her patient “a bitch on wheels.” Although they are both elusive about their pasts, details gradually seep into the story. Slowly, the women gain strength from each other. And both pursue tentative romances. May-Alice rekindles a teenage affection for Rennie (Strathairn), a swamp guide who is married with five children. And Chantelle cautiously fields the hot-blooded advances of a blacksmith cowboy named Sugar (Vondie Curtis-Hall).
At first, both women are fish out of water in Louisiana. And Sayles offsets their acerbic intelligence with a meandering narrative that seems to weave its spell from the serendipitous rhythms of the bayou. At times, the director just surrenders to travelogue, letting the camera capture the evocative music and landscape of Cajun culture. The location became an essential component of the story, said Sayles. “If you’re from this place, you would never forget it. And if you had to return here, feeling like a failure, there are things here that could seduce you out of that bitterness.”
Long after shooting Passion Fish, Sayles was still looking for a title. He eventually found it in a scene that takes place during a boat ride through the bayou. May-Alice and Chantelle watch Rennie gut a fish and pull a couple of minnows from its entrails. Placing one in each woman’s hand, he says: “Squeeze that little fish tight now. Think about someone you want some lovin’ from.” When Chantelle asks if he is making it up, he says, “Ever since there been Cajuns, they been squeezin’ the passion fish— some say you got to swallow them raw.” The legend sounds as if it could have come from Cajun folklore. But it was Sayles who made it up. “It turns out to be a pretty good metaphor for those two women,” he said—and for a director who learned to squeeze small miracles from a fecund imagination.
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