Filmmakers Zefrey Throwell and Josephine Decker first met at a goodbye party. Their brief but volcanic romance began that night when he pretended to throw her off the roof. It was 2011, the world was still spinning forward, and these two beautiful strangers were soon lost in a shared daydream where, in Decker’s words, “you’re making art and you’re making life and anything feels possible.”
They waited a little while to have sex, because they were that committed to each other, but the inevitable episode was intimate in a very different way than either of them had expected or hoped for, arousal curdling into alarm when Throwell’s condom slipped off. Decker had never taken the morning-after pill before, and the experience — in her words — “makes you a little fucking nuts.” It was sometime around then, either just before or right after or maybe even while Decker was screaming “you killed our baby!” at her partner, that she and Throwell committed to making a very candid film about their time together.
The finished product is a wild new something called “Flames” (arriving on VOD just in time for Valentine’s Day). A semi-linear slipstream of unsimulated sex, emotionally pornographic dramatizations, and the honest-to-God heartache that happens when a breakup lingers in the air for longer than the relationship it capped off, “Flames” is combustible stuff to begin with, and it’s being released into a culture that seems in the middle of a collective self-immolation; a ritualistic cleansing of sorts.
At a time when people are doing everything in their power to disentangle a work of art from the pain of its production, Throwell and Decker have made a molotov cocktail of a movie in which doing that becomes fundamentally impossible — a movie in which the difference between reality and performance becomes as hard to define as the difference between pain and personal growth.
For most couples, this might seem like an extreme commitment; for Decker and Throwell, it was practically inevitable. She’s the kind of writer-director whose kaleidoscopic storytelling is rooted in self-reflective subjectivity, and he’s the kind of performance artist who once mixed his own father’s ashes with crystal meth, so it’s not much of a shock that these two would turn a camera on themselves. Nor is it particularly surprising that their combined efforts would result in such a strange and fascinating piece of work, as each of them are vital talents in their own right.
Decker’s latest feature, a mind-bending masterpiece called “Madeline’s Madeline,” recently topped IndieWire’s critics poll of the best films of Sundance 2018. Throwell’s public displays are known for nakedly exposing the cruelties of capitalism, once staging a nude flashmob that anticipated the anger of Occupy Wall Street. And yet, the least surprising thing about Decker and Throwell’s decision to document their relationship is that it would would also prove to be the decision that doomed their relationship (turning your life into a movie is a fun idea until you remember that movies tend to rely on conflict).
“It started with a show at MoMA,” Throwell recently elaborated to IndieWire, with Decker conferencing into the call from the Los Angeles home she shares with her current boyfriend. “They said: ‘You can essentially do anything.’ Josephine and I had really just fallen in love, and so I thought ‘What if we started filming that process, cut together a quick short, and just showed that?’” The next thing they knew, Decker was standing in Throwell’s bath tub stark naked and peeling imagined pearls of semen from her vagina, performing a dramatically condensed re-creation of their prophylactic mishap on digital video.
The footage looks real as can be, and would perhaps feel unbearably invasive if not for the canned quality of Throwell’s off-screen apology (“I think I came inside you, I’m sorry,” he confesses in a narcotized, nursery rhyme voice that was likely dubbed in long after the fact), and the lingering doubt that anyone would ever shoot such a private moment, let alone decide to share it with the world. Everything seems real, and everything seems fake. “It was a way of moving through this traumatic weird thing that had happened really early on in our relationship,” Decker said, speaking with the calm and candor of someone who bares their soul for a living. “A lot of what therapy is about is just re-telling a story in a new way and inventing a new narrative that supports your strengths and allows you to move on.”
Two weeks later, Decker and Throwell sent MoMA a 13-minute video called “Madonna Mia Violenta.” But things didn’t end there. The relationship burned out, but the project continued for another five years. Throwell couldn’t stop tinkering with it, obsessively diving through old video and cajoling Decker into filming new footage at couples therapy even after they had broken up and begun seeing other people (the woman Throwell has been dating since Decker gets a very well-deserved “thank you” in the credits). Over time, it became increasingly unclear if the movie was helping Throwell to move on, or if the process of making it had become the very thing that was keeping him stuck in the past.
Decker laughed when remembering how Throwell kept hitting her up for help with new scenes: “Zef would be like, ‘Jos, we really just need to meet like one more time to finish the movie!’ And I’d say, ‘It’s not just one more time! You don’t have a whole third act! We broke up, let’s just let it die.’ But he’s very convincing and persuasive, so I would show up, we’d shoot something. And then I’d get a call three months later…”
While the feature begins in the guise of a vérité documentary, the hazy facts of the matter begin to fracture as “Flames” slowly debunks itself, the film unfolding like “Certified Copy” in reverse as we realize that Decker and Throwell are just as lost in the dark as the rest of us. Sure, they might remember which scenes were spontaneous and which were staged, but that clarity only gives way to a deeper confusion. Were they ever really in love, or were they just acting for the camera? Does any relationship offer a clear distinction between reality and performance, or is being with someone ultimately as abstract as losing them?
That haziness begins with sex. “Flames” is barely a minute old before we see Decker and Throwell attempting a position that looks more inspired by Cirque du Soleil than it does the Kama Sutra. He’s standing up, the full moon of his white butt at eye-level with the camera, and she’s lying on the floor and laughing at him, her legs splayed in the air like the broken stream of an old water fountain. It’s a memorable introduction, and the first of several intimate scenes in the first half of the film. “When you start dating someone, you’re just in bed for like three months,” Throwell said, “just having sex all the time. But by the end, there’s no more sex — it’s just talking. Talking, talking, endless talking. We tried to make the movie like a real relationship.”
And make no mistake — the sex is what makes “Flames” feel like the depiction of a real relationship, at least at first. While all of the most obviously “staged” scenes are in this opening portion of the film, the sight of unsimulated sex immediately sells us on the ecstatic truth of what we’re watching. It anchors the movie with the weight of an immovable fact, contextualizing this whole experiment as a documentary that’s been augmented with elements of fiction, rather than a fiction that’s been augmented with elements of documentary. Even after Throwell proposes to Decker towards the end of an ill-fated trip to Danger Island, the moment captured in a conventional shot/reverse-shot style that clearly denotes a fair bit of planning, we still can’t help but accept that this all actually happened in one way or another.
Throwell, however, was quick to question the idea that sex is (or should be) the most reliable signifier of what’s genuine: “People have sex for money all the time, and that’s not real love. Or maybe it is, I don’t know.” Later, on a similar note, he gently challenged some of the rhetoric we’d been using: “Isn’t ‘unsimulated sex’ just called ‘sex?’”
Well… yes and no. There’s a lot of bad porn that would argue real sex can be simulated, just as there are a lot of beautiful movies that would argue simulated sex can be real; the body and the mind each have their own calculus for determining the authenticity of an action, and they both do a pretty shit job of explaining their conclusions to one another.