No one explores the seemingly uninteresting nooks and crannies of the US quite like director John Sayles. One of the veteran indie director’s signatures is the intriguing way in which he singles out region-specific communities, documenting life in small towns the world over. It is a formula that has worked for the auteur for years and this gimmick yields a high payoff that remains timely and fresh, but often a tad macho. In 1992’s Passion Fish, Sayles tries a more feminine approach and proves again that he can still speak volumes with a simple, straight-forward character-driven piece accompanied by an amazing natural setting (the geographic location this time out is the sometimes treacherous, lush bayou and swamp country of Louisiana; photographed with love). The parish in question plays out like any other aspect of the film and Sayles incorporates the mythology of his characters into that of the land. We get to see the interaction between “Cajun” and “Yankee”, healthy and disabled, and man and woman.
The film follows two women: May-Alice and Chantal (Mary McDonnell and Alfre Woodard) are from wildly opposite ends of the socio-economic scales. Mary-Alice is a bitchy, self-involved soap opera actress passed her prime who is randomly hit by a taxicab and rendered paraplegic. She is an acidly bitter character: drinking to calm her pain and acting like a maniacal shrew to anyone who gets close enough for her to yell at (A hilarious montage shows a series of home care workers in various states of craziness being dispatched by the lady of the house, in fits of hysterical self-destructiveness). The sequence brings us to Chantal, a former nurse who comes to take care of May-Alice. She badly needs the job and puts up with the rebellious, reprehensible behavior of her employer every day out of sheer desperation. Chantal’s story is every bit as intriguing as May-Alice’s: she is a former drug user trying to regain custody of her daughter.
The pairing is lyrical, though each performer’s style couldn’t be any more different. They play off of one another to hilarious, moving effect; each bringing in a wicked sense of humor along with their open hearts. The transition from a starchy employer/employee relationship into a cautiously friendly one is then matched by something much more interesting: they become dependant on one another, creating palpable honesty and an intimacy as actors and as their characters. McDonnell has some awesome moments: her alcoholic rants, her bitterness over being paralyzed, and her challenging scenes of physical rehabilitation all play out with equal ease. In the less flashy part, Woodard’s calm, casual demeanor and her guarded mind are what make Chantal so engrossing. Even with her very sad past, Woodard never overplays or gets overly-sentimental. Chantal makes it clear she is not a victim and is perfectly in control. It is a rare treat to be able to see two richly-drawn female characters such as these unfold at the leisurely pace they do.
Passion Fish is an elegant and simple tale that is only highlighted by Sayles’ vivid writing techniques: we get to know the land and its inhabitants again through their pain, as they retreat to the soothing country to heal. This is a constant theme throughout Sayles’ body of work, but here the ladies endow their story with a sweetness that is missing from the director’s other more tense, masculine films. The film is a more modern throwback to the “woman’s picture” era when movies about the fairer sex overcoming life’s obstacles were actually box-office successes and celebrated by the masses. Though Sayles is operating, ironically, in the world of “soap operas”, he thankfully spares us the schmaltz and high drama, preferring to remain ardently true to his characters - two women dealt a bad hand coping the best way they know how: by relying on the kindness of strangers.