Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Neon and National Geographic Documentary Films releases the film in theaters on Wednesday, July 6.
Sara Dosa’s “Fire of Love” is a documentarian’s dream. With a truly amazing trove of archival footage taken by married volcanologists Maurice and Katia Krafft, the movie is, seemingly, essentially handed to them. However, that surely didn’t make piecing together this vivid and soaringly heart-tugging documentary a simple task. The filmmakers have restored and re-assembled endless reels and dozens of hours of film and video footage dating back to the late 1960s into a witty portrait, aided amply by appropriately monotone and poetic narration from filmmaker Miranda July, and a soundtrack of go-to, let’s-run-toward-our-future pop classics like Brian Eno’s electronic anthem “The Big Ship.” At an economical 90-minute running time, “Fire of Love” packs a visual and emotional wallop, with enough close-ups on erupting volcanoes — one, at a point, is called “a bathtub with a hole in it, sowing death all around” — to leave you slack-jawed, terrified, and awe-inspired.
“Fire of Love” allows you to contemplate life lived at the edge of the abyss, at the precipice of spewing lava and 1200-degree Celsius heat. It’s that pyroclastic connection that brings together twin flames Katia (who calls herself the “bird”) and Maurice (him, the “elephant seal”), who met on a park bench in 1966, got married, and saved up enough cash to honeymoon in Stromboli, an island off the north coast of Sicily that’s home to three active volcanoes. Then they made a career out of their fascination, making their first big expedition to Mount Nyiragongo in the Congo, and gaining notoriety for often being the first at an active volcano. Two decades later, in 1991, they died unexpectedly, standing next to each other, amid an eruption on Mount Unzen in Japan, Maurice’s watch permanently stopped at 4:18 p.m.
“Americans would call us freelancers. We are more like traveling performers,” Katia says at one point in the movie, which, along with doubling as an astounding nature documentary on its own terms, is also a wry portrait of a marriage between two people always keeping each other on their toes. The Kraffts’ obsession with volcanoes almost triangulates their love story, with their subject becoming the third point in a, shall we say, gushingly romantic trifecta. July’s narration — penned by director Dosa with Erin Casper, Jocelyne Caput, and Shane Boris — idealizes and even anthropomorphizes the volcanoes in the very same way. Words applied to their smoldering immensity include “infant” (referring to a burgeoning one), “parent” (referring to the mother one), “friend” (because the volcanoes certainly are, at least to the Kraffts), and then “fever”-ish, “indifferent,” and otherwise. The volcanoes — with the force of the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980 alone the equivalent of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima — are never not cast as agents of malice. But it’s hard not to find them adorable in the true sense of the term through the viewpoint of the Kraffts.
Director Dosa stumbled upon the Kraffts while making her previous movie, “The Seer and the Unseen,” a magical-realist documentary about an Icelandic woman who communicates with spirits through nature (not unlike, to a less spiritual degree, what the Kraffts were up to). The Kraffts were highly aware of their public image, and so there is no shortage of irreverent material and documentation of them at work, on the side of a volcano, or in between on lecture tours. Throughout their run, they were celebrities in France, which meant a surfeit of footage was accessible in public archives, in addition to the finely preserved, grainily beautiful reels ensconced at an archival house in France.
This is a quintessentially French story about French people, which means it’s filled with plenty of French pop tunes and, visible or not, references to French New Wave cinema (there’s a “Jules and Jim”-ness to their love affair with volcanoes, and a Jacques Cousteau quirkiness to the edit).
“Fire of Love” doesn’t exactly have a narrative throughline, as editors Casper and Caput are mostly collaging a shaggy and meandering (but never dull) portrait. And while the Kraffts as people remain somewhat opaque in this film, that’s likely by design, as they were meticulous yet self-aware about their public image, which had to have meant preserving a private one. The 16mm footage that forms the basis of the movie is astounding even on a small screen, as, at one point, Katia perches on the mouth of an exploding void, insulated by aluminum and asbestos. It’s the kind of footage undreamable then and even today without a drone to do the cinematographic work.
Ultimately, “Fire of Love” acquires a ticking-clock, lump-in-the-throat inevitability as we inch closer to the ’90s, and to the seething mountain in Japan that would eventually claim the Kraffts’ lives. Dosa’s film does not linger too closely on their deaths, but instead exuberantly celebrates their lives, forgoing any talking heads or outside counsel to focus squarely on what’s surely the most unusual married couple in documentary history.
“Fire of Love” world premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in the U.S. Documentary Competition.