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One of the most venerable of documentary genres focuses on eccentrics whose commitment to various pursuits within nature leads them either up to or past the brink of death. With recent examples like Grizzly Man, Free Solo and The Alpinist, it’s a genre that comes with the built-in friction that as compelling as the subjects’ behavior might be, romanticizing that behavior might be dangerous.
In some ways, Sara Dosa’s Fire of Love, one of the opening films of this year’s virtual Sundance, feels like that genre’s apotheosis.
Fire of Love
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Documentary Competition)
Director: Sara Dosa1 hour 33 minutes
The documentary tells the story of Katia and Maurice Krafft, married volcanologists who bonded over their childhood fascination with volcanoes, spent their lives chasing volcanic eruptions around the globe and, yes, died together while studying an active volcano. Accompanied by a dreamy soundtrack and philosophically flowery narration by Miranda July, it’s a doomed love story on every level, a gorgeous collage of a film in which romance, scientific inquiry and death do a 93-minute dance.
Early in their shared career — Katia acted as geo-chemist, Maurice as geologist — the Kraffts realized that the best way to support that career required publicity. So they endeavored to document all of their adventures on a cinematic level that went beyond intellectual inquiry. They made movies. They did speaking tours. They made TV appearances. As a result, the couple left behind hundreds of hours of still photography and movie footage, which Dosa uses as the basis for her assemblage, along with myriad interviews they conducted to promote their endeavors.
The footage is astonishing, a record of the Earth tearing itself apart and reforming, with billowing plumes of smoke, torrential downpours of flaming boulders and river after river of glowing lava, sometimes hardening in to rock, sometimes meeting the sizzling barrier of the sea and sometimes flowing freely, terrifyingly. It’s hypnotic — though many things become hypnotic when you set a montage to a track by Air — and alien and undeniably sensual. Freud would have a field day with the intersection of the erotic and near-death that come together in these sequences, which Erin Casper and Jocelyne Chaput edit with an unerring sense of nature’s own percussion.
The footage, incidentally, has all been restored, but not over-polished, and I can only assume it would look gorgeous on the big screen. Without relying on IMAX-like technology, the documentary offers the sensation of literal, death-defying immersion, augmented by the burble of a molten stream, the hiss of a newly formed pumice island, the tinkling of shattered obsidian in the sound design.
Embedded within the footage and the staged interviews are glimpses of a relationship. As we see it, Maurice was playful and daring, charging forward with reckless abandon. But even if Katia comes across as quieter and more cautious, there she is at his side in situations most people would flee. We don’t have to see them holding hands or cuddling or really being affectionate at all to see them as a couple. At every step, the Kraffts recognize that they’re transitory interlopers surrounded by something eternal, but through their footage and in their deaths, they become eternal as well.
Dosa eschews new filming and fresh talking-head interviews that might have given more practical insight into the Kraffts and their relationship, but the dreamy tone is enhanced by voiceover offering a sense of high-minded omniscience via lines like “Together, they’re there for the volcano, who is indifferent in the face of their adulation.” Yes, it’s a little (or a lot) pretentious, but July’s bordering-on-deadpan delivery somehow grounds it in an acceptance that what their love and work represented is more important than something as terrestrial as “reality.” And maybe the voiceover and narrated excerpts from their writing aren’t so much “pretentious” as “French” and stemming from a ’60s and ’70s artistic tradition — not confrontational enough to be classified as New Wave, but in that vicinity.
The documentary is poetic and flowery, but it’s hardly without a sense of humor, like the dashes of animation (by Lucy Munger) that Dosa uses when the footage lacks connective tissue. It also isn’t without some measure of incredulity, as in an episode where Maurice goes paddling out into a lake of sulphuric acid with very little scientific motivation, leaving Katia back on the shore.
That incident is a key piece of the underlying story here — one that traces how the Kraffts’ interest in volcanoes, which initially stems from loneliness the documentary attributes to growing up in post-WWII Alsace, progressed from giddy curiosity into a more humanist attempt to advance the study of early warning signs in order to prevent mass casualties from eruptions. Whether that plays as an explanation or just an excuse probably depends on your perspective.
By genre standards, theirs becomes more of a noble death and less one brought about exclusively by personal compulsion — the need to hang out with bears, the need to climb a mountain in a particularly idiosyncratic way. That helps Fire of Love stand out thematically in addition to its aesthetic pleasures. Volcanoes, the documentary reminds us over and over again, can end life and they can bring new life, and that’s what Fire of Love does for its genre as well.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Documentary Competition)
Production Companys: Sandbox Films, Intuitive Pictures, Cottage M
Director: Sara Dosa
Writer: Sara Dosa, Erin Casper, Jocelyn Chaput, Shane Boris
Producers: Sara Dosa, Shane Boris, Ina Fichman
Executive producers: Greg Boustead, Jessica Harrop
Editors: Erin Casper, Jocelyn Chaput
Narrator: Miranda July
Composer: Nicolas Godin
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