Maurice and Katia Krafft are in love, but they are not each other’s greatest love. That would be the volcanoes: the subject of their profession, the driving force of their adventures, and the overwhelming passion of their hearts. Fire of Love allows us to view the world as the Kraffts did during their decades-long career as volcanologists – as close to the edge as possible before they were consumed by fire and ash. Using archival footage, interviews, and animated interludes, documentarian Sara Dosa crafts a poetic, spectacular portrait of a couple bound by fire.
The Kraffts were renowned French volcanologists from the 1970s until their untimely deaths during Japan’s Mt. Unzen eruption in 1991. Their contributions to the field of volcanology are apparent: the documentary credits them with saving lives thanks to the warning signs they’ve established through their studies. But the Kraffts (and by extension, documentarian Sara Dosa) make no secret that they’re drawn to the thrill of the chase, trotting across the globe to catch the next volcanic eruption. Their scientific pursuits come at great personal risk, and I suspect a great adrenaline rush.
It should be no secret from the poster alone that Fire of Love would be a spectacle for the eyes, but I was not prepared for the extent of textures, motions, and colors in the documentary. The Kraffts created a visual archive full of life and death: bubbling magma, green saplings against black obsidian, acidic lakes, and calcified animals. There are magnificent explosions of the brightest red I’ve ever seen on screen.
Early on, we’re treated to a brief lesson on two types of volcanoes – the safer “red” volcanoes, and the deadly “gray” volcanoes. This becomes the color palette of the film, with wonderful orange and white gradients in between. As the Kraffts begin to take on more dangerous work, the palette begins to dull, a foreboding sign of things to come. One of the final shots of the film, a descending cascade of gray ash, is as powerful as any image you’d find in Baraka or Samsara.
It’s impressive enough on its own that these impressive images weren’t crafted with modern CGI. It’s even more awe-inspiring to remember that all of it was captured 30 to 50 years ago under death-defying circumstances. Dosa calls particular attention to the Kraffts’ cinematic eye by showing us that these images were not by sheer happenstance, but very deliberately crafted by the couple to showcase the volcanoes in their true brilliance. The couple, always daring to get closer, proves their mettle through their films and photos.
There’s a scene in the middle of the film where Maurice Krafft shies away from the claim that he’s a filmmaker. “I am not a filmmaker. I am a volcanologist that happens to make films so I can study volcanoes.” As if to catch Krafft in a lie, Dosa immediately follows the interview footage with outtakes of the couple scouting for locations, practicing their reactions, and adjusting their camera placements. They always sought to make their footage as cinematic as possible, knowing that the language of film was essential to convey their accomplishments in the field. The Kraffts may have had an audience in mind, but their footage certainly isn’t dishonest. The couple is far too emotionally involved in their work for that ever to be the case.
There’s an insightful moment in the film where Katia, scaling the side of a volcano, wonders what the experience be like from the volcano’s perspective, comparing herself to an ant in the wake of the gigantic mountain. It’s a thoughtful and humble consideration, one that pops up regularly throughout the Kraffts’ interviews and diary entries. They are forever respectful of the majesty, the terror, and the awesomeness of the volcanoes.
Sara Dosa’s laconic and meditative words, narrated with Miranda July’s quiet, smoky voice, mirror Krafft’s writing style perfectly. She offers concise and stylistic prose, speaking of the couple the way they might speak about the foundational elements of our planet: it’s intimate, poetic, and pragmatic. Nicolas Godin’s score works seamlessly with July’s narration. For every cosmic beat, there’s an adrenaline-pumping guitar riff – it’s a soundscape that reminds us that a chaotic force is bubbling just under the surface.
The Kraffts briefly muse about the risks involved with their profession, but it’s quickly handwaved over as they race to capture the next volcanic eruption. Their mutual purpose has dulled their sense of danger, resulting in their “kamikaze existence,” as Maurice describes it. If that “kamikaze existence” is responsible for their sudden deaths, it’s also responsible for an adventurous life, one well-documented and well-lived. Fire of Love is a marvelous experience that cuts through time and finds new life decades after the cameras stopped rolling.
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