Movie of the Month: Passion Fish (1992)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Boomer made BrandonBritnee, and Hanna watch Passion Fish (1992).

Boomer: I was born in Louisiana and didn’t reside elsewhere for longer than a month or two for the first 28 years of my life.  It’s been over a year since I was last home. With the pandemic continuing to rage because some people are just too selfish and obsessed with the abstract concept of personal liberty to just stay home, what could have been a few fortnights of quarantine, isolation, social distancing, and loneliness have stretched into over half a year with no real end in sight, so it’s not clear when it will be safe to travel again.  Where I am now is a place of natural beauty, varied cultural interest, and urban elegance, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t lack a certain verdancy that I sometimes feel a longing for.  Few things of late have made me more homesick than the movie Passion Fish.

NYC-based soap opera actress May-Alice Culhane (Mary McDonnell) is left paraplegic following a mundane but nonetheless tragic vehicle collision, and returns to her long-abandoned parents’ lakefront home on Lake Arthur.  Unable to fully care for herself in a home that wasn’t built with the wheelchair-bound in mind, May-Alice’s resentment of her newfound immobility, loss of employment, and isolation lead her to lash out angrily at a series of home nurses who range from grossly incapable to overly familiar to simply not being a good fit.  The last of these is Chantelle (Alfre Woodard), who has her own problems.  Although the two women are initially mistrustful and intermittently antagonistic, Chantelle’s unwillingness to coddle May-Alice or to allow herself to become another in a long line of nurses driven off by her employer’s hostility forges a bond between the two women that eventually exceeds what either of them could have expected.

I was given this movie a few years ago as a birthday gift by a couple who were my first friends here in Austin, and with whom I played weekly trivia—religiously—for a few years. As we have similar interests, one of the games that we used to play (poolside, in the car, wherever) was the one where you connect two actors using a series of “acted alongside” connections.  For example, if one person suggests Pam Grier and the other suggests Audrey Hepburn, one might connect Hepburn to Veronica Cartwright through The Children’s Hour, then Cartwright to Yaphet Kotto through Alien, then Kotto to Pam Grier through Friday Foster.  I have a profound love for both McDonnell and Woodard, and bring them up frequently as a connector when playing this game, which led to the recommendation (and ultimate gift) of Passion Fish.  It has been one of the best recommendations ever, as it transported me fully not only back home to Louisiana but also to my childhood in the nineties.

Passion Fish also falls under one of my favorite genres/topics: the story of women on the verge.  May-Alice’s frustration, feelings of impotence, and what she perceives as the loss of her identity as a woman of moderate celebrity, are clear and powerful without falling into the trap of ableism, which it easily could have.  Her career is over, her place in society is gone, and she finds herself back in a home she never wanted to revisit and has spent her entire adult life running from.  As we learn in one of a series of vignettes in which she reunites with various people from her past, May-Alice was always an outsider in her community, the “weird girl” who stood out and was socially punished for it; it’s no wonder that she sees the loss of the lifeline that she used to flee this place as the end of her journey, while also dealing with the associated traumas of losing the functionality of the lower half of her body.  It’s not an abstract issue: she falls off of the toilet and is alone in her house for hours without assistance, and the lack of accessibility features (like ramps) in her home minimizes her world.

May-Alice isn’t alone on this precipice either, as it turns out that Chantelle has lied her way into her current position, having lost her nursing credentials (and custody of her daughter) after falling in with a man who gave her access to crack cocaine.  It would be easy to dismiss this as another lightweight “inspirational” movie (complete with a problematic trope or two) were it merely about May-Alice overcoming obstacles through the help of a sassy stereotype, and to some I’m sure it comes across as one, but Chantelle is no mere prop for May-Alice’s recovery.  She has her own problems, issues, fears, and even romance — all of which are separate from her relationship with May-Alice as both caregiver and friend, even if those disparate threads sometimes intertwine.  Powerhouse performances from both lead actresses are what push this beyond being some lighthearted pablum for the masses into something truly beautiful, while weaving in various coastal/bayou cultural touchstones like ghost mythology, local folks who are recognizable as people instead of archetypes, and lots (and lots) of zydeco music.

One of the other ways that Passion Fish rises above the rest of the crop is through its narrative throughline.  We start in a New York hospital in which May-Alice awakens to learn that her life has changed from a faceless, impersonal member of the medical staff.  From there, as she falters at adapting to her new circumstances and decides to go home to Louisiana—even as she encounters fans of her work—all of them remain faceless and unseen to us, like specters. Only once she’s back home do those around her begin to exist again, and so does she.  In one of our long-ago MotM reviews of Big Business, I was openly opposed to the trope of “Rural living is simply better to urban life,” and while there’s some of that at play here, I also think that it exposes the facile nature of that assumption as we meet people both shallow and deep from each of May-Alice’s worlds.

I really enjoyed this vignette-style set-up of characters, although I was a little disappointed that some of them never reappeared.  First we meet May-Alice’s closeted(ish) Uncle Max, who at first reads as a parody of a Tennessee Williams character before revealing a depth of character beneath his genteel Southern nature.  From there we are introduced to two of May-Alice’s childhood tormentors who recall their “friendship” with their now-famous(ish) victim very differently, going so far as to attempt to bond with her over the girl they used to bully, not realizing that they are one and the same.  We also meet a trio of women from May-Alice’s soap opera world, including the actress who now plays her role on The Young and the Stupid and her closest friend (Angela Bassett!).  Each of these encounters seems to set up a future interaction or confrontation, but reveal that both worlds have people who have a depth of personality (Uncle Max), those who have a lack of it (her childhood bullies), and those who portray vapidity but actually have a rich internal life (the actresses).

Of these and the other vignettes, there are some that feel like a potential that is unfulfilled, and some that feel perfect in their concision.  Brandon, which was your favorite interaction? Is there a character you wish we saw more of?  Are there any characters who reappear that you feel were too large a part of the narrative?

Brandon:  I can’t say that I was especially invested in the either of the male love interests that drift in & out of these women’s lives, and by the end I don’t think the movie was either.  The story doesn’t conclude with the two leads settling down for a humble Southern-fried life on the bayou with new respective husbands in tow, so the men’s presence mostly felt like a means to draw the women out of their shells.  I wouldn’t have minded if the men’s screentime had been cut a little short to reflect that eventual unromantic conclusion, either to allow more breathing room for the more engaging relationship dynamics or just to shave the runtime down to under two hours (this is one of those languorous Entire Afternoon movies that’s in no rush to get anywhere in particular).  Whereas the potential bayou beaus mostly feel disconnected from the women’s lives outside this brief retreat from “the real world”, the other side characters that pop in for a single visit do a lot to illustrate what their lives were like before their recent traumas transformed them.  You just have to consider them in contrast with each other rather than in isolation.

I most appreciated the contrast between the visits from the two groups of women from May-Alice’s past.  While her stay at her family’s Lake Arthur home has been restorative (largely due to Chantelle), the film is not at all shy about interrogating why it would be worthwhile to leave that “simple” life behind.  Her smiling, suburban childhood bullies that drop in to snoop & gossip are torturous demons in Good Christians’ clothing.  Consider that unannounced lunch-date in contrast with her chosen family of Big City artists who visit between filming episodes of The Young and the Stupid.  They might be just as flawed as human beings, but they’re genuine & kind in a way that transcends the small-minded, small-town misery the snooping locals represent.  If the two love interest characters add anything to this story, it’s in softening that Small Town vs. Big City divide by demonstrating that there can be genuine, kind-hearted people in even the most toxic of closed-off communities.  Still, the two visits from those distinctly opposed groups of women still say a lot about the urban-rural divide when considered on their own.  It’s a very real, very distinct contrast  that I’ve felt even just moving the short distance from “down-the-road” in St. Bernard Parish to New Orleans proper, a trajectory I never intend to reverse.

On a shallower note, I also most enjoyed the visit from the Big City women because it featured the film’s true centerpiece: the “anal probe” monologue.  It’s an excellent actor’s showcase for one of the visiting soap stars, who explains the never-ending embarrassments of trying to make it in a viciously sexist entertainment industry that would rather her appear nude or ruminate on extraterrestrial anal probes in trashy sci-fi dreck than genuinely pursue her craft.  That monologue is a showstopper on its own, but it also points to what I found to be one of the film’s more rewarding choices: its R-rating.  Passion Fish looks & acts like a Normie heartwarmer about proud women overcoming sudden adversity, but it pulls that off with an impressively direct, vulgar bitterness that cuts through the usual bullshit — the same way that the cannibalism & lesbian romance cut through the bullshit in Fried Green Tomatoes.  You can especially feel the effect of that vulgarity in the early scenes where May-Alice is still in her full Rude Soap Star mode, cursing her nurses & her own failing body in a long string of f-bombs — making her simultaneously more Difficult and more Relatable.

Britnee, how different do you think this movie would be if it had toned down that vulgarity for an easy PG-13 rating?  Do you think you would have appreciated Passion Fish any more or less if you caught an edited-for-TV version where they replaced the word “fuck” with “frak” in those early scenes (Battlestar Galactica style, in honor of Mary MacDonnell)?

Britnee: How did I go all this time without knowing about Passion Fish?  Late 80s and early 90s dramas revolving around Southern women are always a treat, and Passion Fish did not disappoint.  And to top it off, Alfre Woodard is one of my favorite actresses.  She was, of course, amazing as Chantelle.  I’d say this was one of her top performances, putting it up there even with her role as Betty Applewhite in Desperate Housewives.  Passion Fish is a film about one of the most important things that a woman can have: female friendships.  The connection built between Chantelle and May-Alice came off so strong without feeling over-acted, making me shed a tear or two at the end of the film.

May-Alice’s potty mouth made me connect with her character right off the bat.  Her frustration with her being a paraplegic and having her world upended would not have come across the same way if her language was toned down.  I think the film would still be enjoyable without all the more R-rated parts, but it just wouldn’t be the same.  And I also shared the same enthusiasm for the “anal probe” monologue, which television (at least at the time the film was released) would have most definitely cut out.  Passion Fish without the anal probe bit would be like Christmas without a Christmas tree.  It’s just plain wrong.

What Passion Fish did so well was balance the two stories of Chantelle and May-Alice without allowing one to overpower the other.  There was something so heartwarming watching both women who’ve hit rock bottom find their way back up while stuck with each other on Lake Arthur.  Hanna, did you also think that Chantelle and May-Alice’s stories were balanced?  Or was focus placed more on one character than the other?

Hanna: I thought that May-Alice and Chantelle’s stories were pretty well balanced, especially for a plot that could have veered into Driving Miss Daisy territory.  Movies about Black people rehabilitating white people can come off a little gross, especially when their identity is defined by their role as a caretaker for the white character in need of some personal growth.  I do think there was a touch of that in Passion Fish.  I learned a lot about May-Alice throughout the film; she was an outspoken Joan Baez fan in rural Louisiana, she’s a gifted photographer, and she’s an excellent cook.  Other than Chantelle’s history with drug addiction and estrangement from her father and daughter, I only know that she can’t cook and she doesn’t like the swamp, which are both negations of May-Alice’s characteristics.  I enjoyed the interruptions May-Alice’s visitors (her gay uncle, southern Louisiana frenemies, and New York art friends), who all help to paint a richer picture of her character and life up until this moment.  Meanwhile, Chantelle’s visitors are strict reinforcements of her history with drugs: the boyfriend who got her addicted, and the father and daughter she lost in the process.  Both May-Alice and Chantelle were given equal weight and both are portrayed as strong women with complex inner lives, but May-Alices’s story felt a little more expansive than Chantelle’s.

I think the difference can be mostly explained by the nature of the two women’s recoveries rather than a narrative disinterest in Chantelle’s story.  May-Alice learns that she can create a rich and valuable world for herself being paraplegic in southeastern Louisiana.  Meanwhile Chantelle is rediscovering her personhood in the wake of an addiction that stole her life, and has just reached the point where she can trust herself enough to nurture her life and relationships in the last stages of recovery.  We get to see Chantelle relax into herself a little with her love interest, but I wish we had the chance to see that happen more fully, and I wish her world could have expanded in a direction that didn’t involve May-Alice or another man.  In the end, I think Alfre Woodard’s performance was a godsend for this role; she brought incredible depth to a Chantelle’s character, which could have easily tipped into flat stereotype in an otherwise powerhouse drama driven by two utterly compelling women.

Lagniappe

Brandon: I’m tickled by how this film’s behind-the-scenes pedigree contrasts its seemingly ordinary surface details.  This not only includes an early cinematography credit for industry legend Roger Deakins, but also the fact that it was written, directed, and edited by John Sayles – a respected novelist & returning Movie of the Month champ who also penned our beloved urban creature feature Alligator (1980).

Boomer: I love Brandon’s identification of this as an “Entire Afternoon” movie (trademark that).  That’s precisely what it is, although I would also say it falls into that genre of “Your Mom Rented This in the Nineties.”  For your enjoyment, here’s some local coverage of the 20th anniversary of the film in Jennings, where it was largely filmed.

Britnee: I normally get annoyed when actors have horrible Cajun accents in movies, which Passion Fish did have in abundance, but the plot was so wonderful that the slow Southern drawl that Cajuns do not have didn’t bother me one bit.  I actually found it to be super funny when Rennie would slip in and out of his accent and would sometimes sound like a suburban dad from Connecticut.

Hanna: The Anal Probe scene was also a favorite of mine; it was desperately professional, heartbreaking, and funny.  It reminded me of “The Actress”, an SNL skit where Emma Stone plumbs the dramatic depths of “mom that finds her husband cheating on her with her godson” in a gay porno.  I’ve filed both of these bits under my file of female actors authentically dedicating themselves to the tiny scrap of material they’ve been afforded.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
December: Britnee presents Salome’s Last Dance (1988)
January: The Top Films of 2020

-The Swampflix Crew

One thought on “Movie of the Month: Passion Fish (1992)

  1. Pingback: Bonus Features: Passion Fish (1992) | Swampflix

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