Fire of Love
Compiled from spectacular archival footage, this documentary about French volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft is a stunner.
September 16, 2022
Spewing fire is so hot right now, and literally always — and dragons aren't the only ones doing it. House of the Dragon and Blaze can have their flame-breathing creatures, and Fire of Love can have something that also seems fantastical but is one of the earth's raging wonders. The mix of awe, astonishment, adoration, fear, fascination and unflinching existential terror that volcanoes inspire is this documentary's playground. It was Katia and Maurice Krafft's daily mood, including before they met, became red beanie-wearing volcanologists, built a life chasing eruptions — The Life Volcanic, you could dub it — and devoted themselves to studying lava-spurting ruptures in the planet's crust. Any great doco on a topic such as this, and with subjects like these, should make viewers experience the same thrills, spills, joys and worries, and that's a radiant feat this Sundance award-winner easily achieves.
What a delight it would be to trawl through the Kraffts' archives, sift through every video featuring the French duo and their work, and witness them doing their highly risky jobs against spectacular surroundings for hours, days and more. That's the task filmmaker Sara Dosa (The Seer and the Unseen) took up to make this superb film. This isn't the only such doco — legendary German director Werner Herzog has made his own, called The Fire Within: A Requiem for Katia and Maurice Krafft, after featuring the couple in 2016's Into the Inferno — but Fire of Love is a glorious, sensitive, entrancing and affecting ode to two remarkable people and their love, passion and impact. While history already dictates how the pair's tale ends, together and exactly as it seemed fated to, retracing their steps and celebrating their importance will never stop sparking new pleasures.
For newcomers to the Kraffts, their lives comprised quite the adventure — one with two volcano-obsessed souls who instantly felt like they were destined to meet, bonded over a mutual love of Mount Etna, then dedicated their days afterwards to understanding the natural geological formations that filled their dreams. Early in their time together, the couple gravitated to what they called 'red volcanoes', with their enticing scarlet-hued lava flows. What a phenomenon to explore when romance beats in the air, and when geochemist Katia and geologist Maurice are beginning their life together. From there, however, they moved to analysing what they named 'grey volcanoes'. Those don't visually encapsulate the pair's relationship; they're the craggy peaks that produce masses of ash when they erupt — Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull, for instance — and often a body count.
As narrated by actor and Kajillionaire filmmaker Miranda July, Fire of Love starts with blazing infatuation and devotion — between the Kraffts for each other, and for their field of interest — then establishes their legacy. Both aspects could fuel their own movies, and both linger and haunt in their own ways. And, as magnificent as this incredibly thoughtful, informative and stirring documentary is, it makes you wonder what a sci-fi flick made from the same footage would look like. The 16-millimetre imagery captured during the Kraffts' research trips around the globe, whittled down here from 200 hours to fill just 98 minutes, puts even the most state-of-the-art special effects in a different realm. Pixels can be used to paint gorgeous sights, and cinema has no shortage of movies that shimmer with that exact truth, but there really is no substitute for reality.
During Fire of Love's first half, those easy visions of science fiction just keep flickering; if someone else had Dosa's access, and had July employ her dreamy voice to spin an otherworldly narrative, movie magic would likely explode. There's a particular sequence that cements that idea, set to the also-ethereal sounds of Air — layering French icons upon French icons — and featuring the Kraffts walking around against red lava in their futuristic-looking protective silver suits. They wander, they risk their lives, and pure actuality beams back. It's nothing short of extraordinary, as well as enchanting. Fittingly, the film's entire score springs from Air's Nicolas Godin, and it couldn't better set the mood; that said, these visuals and this story would prove enrapturing if nary a sound was heard, let alone a note or a word.
Other segments ripple with sheer incredulity — not the several riffs on Katia and Maurice's meet-cute, though, or how he worked the publicity angles to fund their work while she pumped out their books. (In a doco stitched together from archival materials rather than contemporary talking-head interviews, those past TV chats come in handy, too). When Maurice and one of the duo's offsiders decide chalk up the first-ever sailing trip across a lake of sulphuric acid in just a rubber dinghy, floating around the crater of Java's Ijen, jaws can only drop. The footage is breathtaking, and more petrifying than any horror flick. That Katia refused to hop onto the raft also helps spell out the pair's differences. No chemist would trust their life to a bath of acid, yet the geologists are willing to take the chance. Fire of Love falls head over heels for the Kraffts' similarities and mutual fixations, but Dosa, her co-writers/editors Erin Casper (The Vow) and Jocelyne Chaput (Fractured Land), plus producer/fellow co-scribe Shane Boris (Stray), also see where they went their own ways.
When Fire of Love focuses on the Kraffts' groundbreaking observations, it's even more astounding. The film covers the crucial life-or-death impact of their work on grey volcanoes, after attempting to educate towns and cities in the vicinity of such masses — so they could react appropriately and in a timely manner to avoid casualties — became a key part of their mission. Spying the fallout when the couple's warnings about potential fatalities went unheeded, including their cautions about deadly mudslides, is simply heartbreaking. Witnessing how one pyroclastic flow from Japan's Mount Unzen in 1991 forever ended the Kraffts' own narratives, albeit not for the same reason, is just as moving. What an existence Katia and Maurice shared — and what a stunningly compiled and edited tribute this is to them, the rock they called home as we all do, the land features they adored, the ash and fire those volcanoes expel into the sky, and the fragility of life, love and, well, everything.