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- Reviewed from the 2022 Sundance Film Festival
What is it with married French scientists and obsessively studying life-threatening phenomena? Like Marie and Pierre Curie before them, volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft put themselves at risk of physical harm as a result of their need to document and better understand. Sara Dosa’s Fire of Love uses television appearances, animation, and documentary footage shot by the couple to explore their passion for volcanoes and, to a lesser extent, each other.
Although the film offers spectacular (and extremely close-up) images of volcanoes as well as the heartrending aftermath of their eruptions, Fire of Love is stuck between a conventional narrative documentary and something not quite experimental enough to truly enrapture. As such, it never quite satisfies on either level: the Kraffts never feel like fully fleshed-out characters, and the visual and formal potential of the material remains unrealised. Miranda July, who – and I mean this in the best way possible – sounds like she’s been wandering in the desert for days and hasn’t fully rehydrated yet, does a magnificent job performing the often repetitive narration.
Katia, a geochemist, and Maurice, a geologist, were born 20 kilometers apart in Alsace, but never met each other until they were in university. There is no definitive account of their first date, which the film tries to play up as romantic mystery. It attempts – and fails – to make the quotidian and inevitable dreamy. They married after going on an expedition to Iceland to study volcanoes, and honeymooned on the volcanic island of Santorini. The couple vowed never to have children, and instead travelled the globe studying and documenting volcanic eruptions, not only to expand understanding among fellow volcanologists but also for the general public.
After the eruption of Mount Nyiragongo in Zaire in 1977 – which they had visited just four years before during a smaller eruption and miscalculated the power of another explosion and its potential debris – the Kraffts shifted the focus of their study for humanitarian reasons. Though Maurice hated classifications, his two general categories of volcanoes were “red” (nonlethal volcanoes with red lava, which weren’t dangerous to get up close to and, once erupted, provided incredibly rich soil) and “grey” (extremely dangerous volcanoes that flung tremendous amounts of debris and ash across great distances). While it seems hyperbolic to describe the latter category as killer volcanoes, that’s exactly what they are and the Kraffts’ decision to study them exclusively is why they’re not around today.
Resigned to die for science, the Kraffts kept pushing themselves into greater and greater jeopardy. The narrative element of the documentary ramps up along with this danger, but fails to create the dramatic tension it’s seeking. At the start of the film, we are informed that the Kraffts died while observing a volcano; asking the audience to wonder when that’s going to happen is kind of garish and unappealing, although this technique is increasingly common in the world of narrative podcasts, particularly those about murder.
The sometimes effective, sometimes cringey narration repeatedly returns to the metaphor of a heartbeat and blood, which is perfectly suited to lava and built-up pressure, but fails when it comes to the inexpressible reality of their lethal obsession. “How the earth heart beats, how its blood flows. Now they feel their own human hearts beating and breaking,” July intones after the Colombian government failed to evacuate villages (despite warnings from volcanologists), which resulted in the deaths of approximately 25,000 people. The Kraffts’ sublime passion for science superseded rationality; how could that ever be put into words, especially when the filmmaker is limited to recounting their increasingly perilous actions?
Near the end of the film, after their death in Japan, Dosa uses a clip from a French TV interview with the couple. “Me, Katia, and the volcanoes, it’s a love story,” says Maurice. Hearing one of the subjects speak the central argument of the documentary feels like cheap handholding; if you hadn’t picked up on that, three minutes before the film ends, what have you been watching?