Capitalism relentlessly grinds professional passion into ashes. It’s nearly impossible to even imagine loving a job so much you’d die for it. On purpose, not just because Jeff Bezos would rather do a Smaug impression than let an employee afford antibiotics.
Katia and Maurice Krafft died by volcano.
This is not a spoiler.
“Fire of Love” is upfront about the fate of its scientist-lovers (in that order). To quite loosely paraphrase the narration from Miranda July, “Have fun watching this Nat Geo documentary about volcanoes and marriage, but these nerds are gonna totally bite it in the end.” Framing it any other way would have been unforgiveable. Centering their grim fate allows a more complex reading of their lives and choices. Were they quasi-heroic explorers? Adrenaline junkies who loved silly hats? Reckless fame seekers? Hopeless romantics? Excessively French?
Director Sara Dosa and writers Shane Boris, Erin Casper, and Jocelyne Chaput worked with the massive archive of Krafft recordings and photographs to answer all of those questions with “Yes.” Casper and Chaput won an editing award for at Sundance, and it was wildly well-deserved. As thoroughly as Katia and Maurice documented all of their lava investigations (lavastigations?), it’s entirely possible that literal years of footage was available. What the team behind “Fire of Love” did was take a remarkable stab at making something sensical out of two lives that were never quite sane.
After a brief admission that nobody alive seems to know precisely how the two actually met, the film dives right into Katia and Maurice’s work. It chronicles the pair’s rise to fame through the 1970s, their emotional pivot after tragic eruptions in the 1980s, and their eventual demise in the early 1990s. The documentary’s first half hour is something radically special. Without any “talking heads” telling us about our characters, Dosa delivers doses of didacticism. For forty minutes or so, it is the perfect blend of bonkers vacation slideshow, PBS educational special, and poetry.
Then the next half hour just skips and repeats and skips and repeats. Even if they are dressed like they’re going to a party at Wes Anderson’s house, there’s only so long you can endure watching quirky volcanologists walk on dried lava and mug for the camera. What initially felt like a calculated tone starts to feel more like maybe the film doesn’t have much to really say about either the Kraffts or their work.
In particular, Katia gets the short end of the lava pool. Maurice is shown to be part “Jackass” daredevil and part deliverer of science unto the masses. He was a media manipulator and canny cinematographer. Katia loves volcanoes and Maurice. That’s about all we get. To be clear, unlike the abominable Anthony Bourdain doc, “Fire of Love” clearly respects its deceased central figures enough to let them actually speak for themselves. But being respectful doesn’t negate the obligation to present some kind of thesis.
The film ends as it begins, with the simple observation that it’s pretty sweet and pretty nuts that two of the world’s limited number of volcanologists lived close to one another, fell in love, pursued their passions together, and then died. It is, indeed, both pretty sweet and pretty nuts. But maybe its July’s lyrical voice that seems to call for deeper reflection that never comes.
Is it tragic that they died as they did? Is it beautiful? Is it kinda stupid? Did it actually do or mean anything? Not the work they did, some of which clearly advanced their chosen field, but in a larger sense. The doc never pauses to mourn the loss of a time when scientists were treated like celebrities. It lets Maurice squeeze off a few philosophical ponderances about human nature and the brevity of life. Yet, the film never unpacks the significance of those thoughts in light of current-day, regressive attitudes towards the intellectual pursuits he celebrated.
Anyway, it’s pretty sweet and pretty nuts. It just seems like maybe there was an opportunity to leverage this lovely lava lullaby into something more.
Grade = B+
Other Critical Voices to Consider
Radheyan Simonpillai at NOW Toronto says “That they died capturing the kind of beauty we see on screen adds a queasy and compelling layer here. Honestly, it’s not like the footage needed them for personality.”
Karen Gordon at Original Cin says “Dosa has also chosen to keep the tone playful. Maurice and Katia did the thing they loved, making their own rules, seemingly very bonded. There are not a lot of images of them together, but what we see is two people having fun. Playful, sometimes flirtatious, often both together, each of them absorbed in whatever task was in front of them.”
Carla Hay at Culture Mix says “After watching this documentary, some viewers might still have a lot of questions about Katia and Maurice. How did their relationship evolve over time? What were their biggest goals and regrets? What did they like to talk about besides volcanoes and work? There are some interesting nuggets of information, such as they both knew that they would probably die together, but none of this information is surprising.”