It feels like a very French New Wave thing to be in love with a mystery. But Katia and Maurice Krafft, the subjects of Sara Dosa’s documentary “Fire of Love” were, to be fair, very French. They were also celebrated volcanologists who left behind an incredible wealth of archive material, books, and films about perhaps the most awe-inspiring natural feature of our world. In “Fire of Love,” Dosa uses all the editing, sonic, and visual tools at her disposal to shape a film around the Kraffts’ passion for volcanos, and for each other. It is that emphasis on the couple’s ardor, imbued into the film’s presentation and tone, that gives us the truest sense of who they were.
“There’s a sentence in a book that Maurice wrote where he says, ‘For me, Katia and volcanoes, it is a love story.’ And we felt like he was really handing us a thesis for how he understood his life and how we too decided to kind of tell this story,” Dosa told IndieWire.
“The other thing too that is contained in that sentence [is that] it’s not just a love story, it’s a love triangle between Katia and Maurice and volcanoes. And that made us think of the French New Wave films that were becoming very popular as Katia and Maurice themselves were coming of age, and French New Wave aesthetics really show up in their own work. So that also really helped to inform our direction. We embraced some of the hallmarks of that movement in how we edited the film associatively, in the music choices, and in kind of the sense of play as well.”
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Associative editing, where similar-shaped images inside the frames of two shots create the logic for cutting between them — even if they’re happening at different places and different times — came out of Maurice Krafft’s camerawork organically. The footage was shot without sync sound and often jumps around, so Dosa and her editing team of Erin Casper and Jocelyne Chaput found themselves looking for emotional through lines in the footage to connect it all together, rather than relying on what was shot in sequence. The result is that “Fire of Love” can transition with playful ease from a rundown of plate tectonics to the friction in Katia and Maurice’s varying levels of risk-taking while in the field.
Dosa and her team also use sound and music to not just realize the parts of planet Earth the Kraffts’ explored, but to give the film a sense of what that exploration felt like. “[Adding sound] opened up creative pathways that wouldn’t have been available to us otherwise and it allowed us to be, in a strange way, in a more intimate and deeper relationship [with the Kraffts] because we had to ask far more questions of them, of their story, of what they were hearing in the images that we could see so clearly,” producer Shane Boris told IndieWire. Dosa agreed that “the absence of sound allowed us to really experiment with both the realism and the subjectivity of the experience all at once.”
“Since so much of the footage didn’t have sound, [Casper and Chaput] often would use a song as a way of forming the connective tissue between images, as if you’re editing a music video,” Dosa said. “We imagined a retro-futuristic score for the film. That was the word we used a lot. Put in other terms, [the score’s] dreaming of the future, but from a vintage past.” That retro-futurist score, composed by Nicholas Godin of the French pop duo Air, does a lot of mood-setting for the film, keeping it catchy but still cerebral, playfully and proudly offbeat.
But the sense of playful immediacy, of reaching into the future from the past, is what guides the other filmmaking choices Dosa makes as well — adding in storybook animation sequences to tell the parts of Katia and Maurice’s story that didn’t play out in front of a camera and inflecting Miranda July’s narration with a deadpan curiosity. Dosa described July’s voiceover as having “this almost neutral restraint, but a playfulness that you can feel palpably behind the restraint. We thought that would work well, not just because of the [French New Wave influence], but also to try to give space to the imagery and to Katia and Maurice’s voices.”
Every cinematic choice in “Fire of Love” is deployed in service of finding Katia and Maurice’s voices, which leads Dosa and her team to be formally playful in a way that mirrors the Kraffts’ never-ending fascination with their area of study. “Just one example of trying to get into that kind of a perception of volcanoes, to situate the audience in their minds as much as possible: When Erin was editing the scene in Indonesia in 1979, when Katia and Maurice go to visit that volcano, along with the volcanic eruption sounds, she actually experimented with putting dinosaur sounds in there, in a very subtle way, but it did shape this monstrous feeling,” Dosa said. “It felt true to Katia and Maurice’s own perception to how they narrated their own experiences through their own work.”
Getting closer to Katia and Maurice ultimately meant shedding some of the conventions of a traditional love story in how Dosa shaped the structure of the film, too, and tempering the romance of Katia and Maurice’s adventures in the field with a sense of humility and awe. “We wrote what we thought of as an opening myth for the film about a lonely volcano, and then these humans that dared to love this lonely volcano. It was a wonderful writing exercise for us that we thought could help frame the love triangle that we were after,” Dosa said. “But the more we learned about Katia and Maurice, trying to listen deeply to them and their experience, and interviewing their colleagues and family, we realized that the volcano wasn’t lonely. The volcano was the volcano.”
The Filmmaker Toolkit podcast is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, and Stitcher. The music used in this podcast is from the “Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present” score, courtesy of composer Nathan Halpern.