Alfre Woodard and Mary McDonnell in 1992's "Passion Fish."

Passion Fish November 12, 2018  


John Sayles



Mary McDonnell

Alfre Woodard

David Strathairn

Angela Bassett

Nora Dunn

William Mahoney









2 Hrs., 14 Mins.


ho has more power in 1992's Passion Fish? The nurse, or the woman who employs her? Without the nurse, the woman wouldn’t be able to do such simple things as bathe properly — at least not at the outset. But without her employer, the nurse would not have a job. The question, never answered easily, creates an interesting dichotomy that will drive a diptych of a character study that simmers but never quite bubbles over.

In Passion Fish, the nurse is a 40-something named Chantelle (Alfre Woodard), who is from Chicago and is on a hard-drug detox. The employer is May-Alice (Mary McDonnell), a catty, but shrewd, soap-opera actress. Much time passes in Passion Fish before they meet for the first time. As the film opens, May-Alice awakens to find herself in a hospital bed. Slowly, she remembers what happened to her. She was on her way to get her legs waxed when she was struck down by a taxi — an accident which has left her paralyzed from the waist down. The irony. Her career, already having plateaued, must be put on pause. Unsure of what exactly else she should do, knowing that there is no real satisfying ending to the recovery process, May retreats to her family’s old, breezy Louisiana bungalow and decides that she will both hire a nurse to assist her and attempt to booze the pain away.


Neither objective, of course, goes anywhere positive. May-Alice, already prone to making caustic — albeit funny — diatribes, finds that the alcohol doesn’t help (all she wants to do is mope in front of her television set) and that no potential employees quite suit her. They’re either too talkative or too submissive; it is as if she is, subconsciously, that is, looking for someone who can be an amalgamation of a friend, a caretaker, and a rival. It will certainly be difficult for the agency that does the hiring to find someone suitable: she has garnered a reputation as “the bitch on wheels.” Most people are too scared to involve themselves with her. Then enters Chantelle, who is desperate enough to try.


Passion Fish bears a narrative vulnerable to saccharinity. We at first surmise the film might develop to become a purposefully heartwarming story where a cynical and depressed woman will be brought out of the darkness thanks to the kindness offered by a new companion, with white liberal ideas of the ensuing racial dynamic informing the story. But Passion Fish isn’t that movie. Written and directed by John Sayles, whose most acclaimed films are revered for their spotlighting of difficult, naturalistically contradictory characters, the movie works as a prickly character study where the central duo is imperilled by both their self-doubts and the power imbalance which partially defines their relationship.


As May-Alice and Chantelle try to settle exactly what their partnership could and should be — sometimes their relationship resembles a friendship, sometimes it comes across as something of an antagonistic battle — they also ruminate on how they might go about repairing their lives. The tranquil Southern home at which they mill about day in and day out is a quasi-oasis, but it is that placidity that makes it clear that this is an only-temporary resting place. Will May-Alice, if she is able to, resume her acting career, which was long-unsatisfying even before the accident? Will Chantelle, who we learn has a daughter who has been taken out of her care, start anew, or will she succumb to her bad habits, as she seemed ready to before arriving at May-Alice’s?


The story unfolds with a dramaturgic edge, which, in other, less assured cases, could be detrimental. But Sayles, in part because of the capacious acting work underneath him, avoids making staginess a setback. These characters are developed rather ingeniously. Though the expected heart-to-heart dialogues and sermonistic outbursts are revelatory, he also brings in supporting characters to help illuminate who these women used to be, and who they could be. People from May-Alice’s past, from a boy she used to have a crush on (David Strathairn) to a trio of actresses (headed by a standout Angela Bassett), stop by; later, Chantelle’s concerned father and elementary-school-aged daughter visit. Their skepticism rests in their eyes.


These droppings-by are incisive. Sayles has a way of making life stories clear through just a few exchanged words. He emphasizes body language, facial expression. It is not so much what these characters say but how they say it; it is not so much about how listening companions react, but what makes them react the way they do. Sayles has made a rare film in which we hang on to what words are being kept inside. May-Alice is the anomaly in the ensemble, given that she can be brash and compulsively talkative. But that is, I think, Sayles’ point: she is so talkative and outburst-prone precisely because she is too afraid to look inward. Chantelle is a great foil because she is so opposite: introverted, apt for deeper introspection. We suspect she interminably thinks about what she has said and done during moments in which she is not in the midst of a conversation.


One could find the rather anticlimactic finale a cop-out. But I think a more direct, they-learned-from-this-experience-and-moved-on-style ending would be out of sync with its lifelike melodrama. Life isn’t constructed of carefully wrought storylines and tidied conclusions. If May-Alice and Chantelle don’t get the former, why should they get the latter? We figure they’ll sort things out on their own terms, without us watching. A-