There are only so many times you can shout ‘woah!’ at yourself during one film, but this documentary about two French daredevil volcano chasers pushes that number up. Maurice and Katia Krafft spent the 1970s and 1980s married both to each other and to the pursuit of being right there in the heat of the action whenever a volcano turned lethal. Maurice was a geologist, Katia was a chemist, but they were both volcanologists, dedicated to understanding these explosive natural phenomena, which they decided could only really be classified two ways: they were either ‘red’ (obvious lava flows, less dangerous) or ‘grey’ (more like bombs, less fiery, but more murderous).
It was a grey one, Mount Unzen in Japan, which killed them both in 1991. But only after the Kraffts had chased volcanoes all over the world, from Zaire to Washington state in the US, via the Philippines and Italy.
A dreamy voiceover from Miranda July guides us through the Kraffts’ story, as directed by Sara Dosa, who creates a powerful tribute to obsession and to how tiny and powerless we are in the face of geological time and power. The star is the footage: the Kraffts were photographers and filmmakers as well as scientists. They popularised (and funded) their missions through the otherworldly imagery they brought down from the mountains. That means that we’re privy to staggering scenes of the pair in silhouette next to explosive lava – scenes which we could easily think were computer generated if we didn’t know better.
If you didn’t know better, you’d think it was computer generated
Daring doesn’t feel like a fitting label when we watch Maurice take a rubber dinghy out onto a lake of hydrochloric acid. Surely there were – are – commentators who could tell us that the Kraffts were reckless, doomed, flawed or some other label that would bring them back down to earth. But that’s not the point of Fire of Love. This film is about wonder, not balance, and it turns us delirious in the white heat of this pair’s chaotic, unflinching passion. Maurice never did realise his dream of taking a canoe down a lava flow, but Dosa’s film is something like the cinematic equivalent.
Fire of Love premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.