French scientists Katia and Maurice Krafft had a love story so perfect for the movies that it’s hard to believe it’s taken this long for one to get made about them. Gratifyingly, instead of some chintzy Hollywood treatment, we’re getting a documentary told in large part through footage taken by the pair themselves. With Fire of Love, director Sara Dosa relates the Kraffts’ lives and work in a dreamy, sometimes wistful manner. It’s a rare nonfiction romance that gives itself over to an actually romantic aesthetic.
This is especially striking since the Kraffts were working in a field that would naturally lend itself to a more bombastic and imposing tone. The couple were volcanologists, bonding in large part over their research into volcanoes. More specifically, they shared an enthusiasm for getting as close to eruptions as possible, far closer than most had ever dared up to that point in human history. Katia in particular would get right next to rivers of lava without any hesitation, for the sake of collecting the best samples, readings, and photographs that she could. And Maurice would always be not far behind with a film camera. Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, they captured astonishing footage of volcanic phenomena, sometimes for the first time on film, or in better quality than existed previously — eruptions, lava and ash flows, and particularly the effects these events had on the surrounding areas.
Dosa makes copious use of this footage, of course. It’s a cliche by now to look to volcanic eruptions as paramount examples of the sheer power of nature, but a film like this reminds you that some things become cliche simply because they are undeniably true. Since Maurice’s footage usually foregrounds Katia against jaw-dropping spumes of molten rock, flurries of smoke, or crumbling landscapes, her small figure emphasizes the sheer scale of the Earth in upheaval.
Yet the film does not try to overwhelm the viewer, or coast on the power of its visuals while forgetting to tell a story. By filtering this imagery through the Kraffts’ point of view, Dosa makes it into a flexible metaphor — for the potency of romantic love, for the passion they had for their work, for the external forces that surround us while we cling to the people who mean the most to us. The film leans into the unreality of these majestic sights through careful, unhurried editing and its dreamlike tone. Miranda July narrates in a manner quite unlike any one might expect from a traditional documentary voiceover, her distinctive quavery voice evincing deep affection for the Kraffts. In one mesmerizing sequence, the camera scans streams of lava while an interview with Maurice plays in which he expresses his dream of building a canoe of stone so that he could row his way down such a flow. For a moment, you share his absurd, wondrous impulse.
The Kraffts perished together in 1991, during the eruption of Mount Unzen in Japan. It was a tragedy, of course (scores of others died in the same pyroclastic flow that overtook the duo), but they had previously affirmed that they would have no regrets if precisely such an event occurred, that this was the work they were committed to. Fire of Love treats it as the natural culmination of their unusual romance. One gets the sense that for them it couldn’t have ended any other way.
Fire of Love will be playing Visions du Réel, happening April 7-14 in Nyon, Switzerland, and at New Directors/New Films, happening in New York April 20 – May 1. The movie will be released in theaters by National Geographic Documentary Films later this year.