By Scott Cole
* * * 1/2 (3.5 stars out of 5)
While sitting in the theater taking in the new documentary Fire of Love, my mind kept recalling the experience I had in college seeing Werner Herzog’s haunting Grizzly Man (2005) on the big screen. I knew nothing about that film prior to seeing it, but at that time the Belcourt Theatre, Nashville’s long-standing non-profit independent movie house, offered $4 admission for college students on Tuesday nights so I saw a new niche film practically every week. I have great memories of transformative film experiences from that period, but nothing burrowed under my skin the way Grizzly Man did. You might recall that documentary which told the story of Timothy Treadwell who became so obsessed with his study of grizzly bears that he eventually lost his life. Fire of Love examines a similar kind of obsession that begins as scientific exploration and grows into something resembling Icarus flying too close to the sun in Greek mythology.
Fire of Love tells the true story of French volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft. They met in the mid-60s and fell for each other instantly over their deep love and interest in volcanoes. Over the next 25 years, they studied, wrote furiously, took thousands of photos and hours of videotape, and chased erupting volcanoes all over the world. Each new eruption provided an opportunity to get a little closer and dig a little deeper until in 1991, their lives were claimed by the eruption of Japan’s Mount Unzen displaying the volcano’s natural unpredictability they had written about in such detail.
The film’s portrayal of the relationship and marriage of Katia and Maurice is fascinating. He is a large, bombastic personality; always joking and becoming the media mouthpiece for the couple. In contrast, she is more reserved, but neither of them take a backseat in the relationship. The driving force of course is their deep fascination with volcanoes and what causes their unpredictable eruptions. The film makes a point of acknowledging that they both struggle with human relationships. As Maurice says at one point in the film, humanity disappoints them so they gravitate towards nature. Later, in a telling moment, he also notes that if he could eat rocks, he would never come down from the volcanic mountains.
Visually, Fire of Love is something quite beautiful to behold. In addition to gorgeously tactile footage of volcanic eruptions with mesmerizing lava flow, we also see a lot of the Krafft’s own personal video collection where they meticulously documented both types of volcanoes: the red type which the public is most familiar with, and the far more dangerous grey type. The audience watches in fascination at some of the shots as it seems impossible that they could comfortably get close enough to capture some of this footage, but Katia and Maurice find hardly anything impossible. In one scene foreshadowing the couple’s dubious relationship with the threat of danger, Maurice and a pal take a boat out onto a volatile acid lake and get stuck for 3 hours trying to find their way back to shore.
Not all of the choices from director Sara Dosa work as well. At times the images are supplemented by some short little animations driving the story along, and they feel kind of cheesy and amateur compared to the level of the rest of the film. I also think the film’s title and marketing might be slightly misleading by promoting the “love” or romance between the couple as the forefront of the film. Truthfully, except for the early narration setting up Katia and Maurice’s meeting and a brief recall at the conclusion tying the ends together, the romance takes a backseat to the more standard nature documentary images and information.
Interestingly, if the promised romantic aspect is somewhat missing, I was impressed by questions the film raises regarding how healthy the Krafft’s fascination was in conflict with perceived obsession with volcanoes. Have they fallen too far under the volcano’s spell to accurately assess the danger in which they are putting themselves? This issue is also complicated by the fact that their studies are actually beneficial and helpful to saving lives of the people in direct danger from a volcanic eruption. This makes the possible unhealthy obsession even easier to mask, as it is ultimately for a good purpose. Just as the uneasy tone of Grizzly Man was boosted by the irreplaceable narration by director Werner Herzog, the narration of Fire of Love by filmmaker Miranda July (Kajillionaire) really adds something special to the proceedings.
I find it interesting that the most recent film I saw in theaters just a few days prior was Jordan Peele’s new thriller Nope. There are a lot of parallels between these two stories, as inherently different as they ultimately are. They both observe the complicated relationship between the hypnotic pull of the spectacle and the perils of treating extremely dangerous situations as spectacular. They also both provide some fascinating insight into the ability we all have to treat a camera as a shield of sorts. The dream of capturing an image of the danger is perceived as a buffer, but in both cases this delusion is blown apart. But ultimately, Peele’s film is a work of fiction, and sadly Fire of Love is an incisive real-life look at this phenomenon and how we relate to it. It is wonderful to have these images and this story, but was it worth it?