Smartly, director Sara Dosa's documentary Fire of Love — loaded with gorgeous streams of lava and plumes of ash — starts off on the cool side, a truck pushing its way through several feet of snow. By the time it treks up the craggy mountain and we finally peek over the rim, your eyeballs aren't ready for the bright orange explosions in store: hypnotic footage of rocks on fire, ripples of molten earth, dark rivers pocked with flare-ups. Sometimes, it looks like red car lights on the highway at night. Elsewhere, you may think of a Hawaiian sunset. Never once does it feel less than absolutely dangerous.
Watching Fire of Love, you realize how addicting and scary it would be to commit one's life work to the pursuit of such sights — a good thing, because Katia and Maurice Krafft, the married Alsatian French volcanologists at the core of the story remain stubbornly opaque throughout. They are, of course, adorable in their red knit caps (required of all French explorers?), and, as they prep their cameras and equipment, they display the quiet shorthand and efficiency of longtime partners. The film isn't coy about their 1991 deaths from a sudden unpredictable flow, so the quirky Wes Anderson vibe is undercut, tartly, by a sense of fatalism from the start.
"We erupt often," Maurice tells an interviewer digging for marital gossip. But mainly, the romance of the documentary emerges out of its deep, unfaked appreciation for nature: long, uninterrupted stretches where these self-described "weirdos" go off on their own to explore alien worlds like astronauts in their protective gear.
Sundance Institute 'Fire of Love'
Dosa's technique follows suit, quieting down from its initial hyperactive preciousness into a cleaner grammar, the spiky peaks of a seismograph cutting to the rotors of a helicopter, the search on for the latest eruption. A bloopy, hard-driving electronica score (choice tracks are sourced from Brian Eno, Air, credited composer Nicolas Godin, and others) situates us squarely in a brainiac's beat laboratory, while the narrating voice of artist-filmmaker Miranda July — itself a kind of throaty, breathy terrain — supplies just the right balance of hushed awe and diaristic intimacy.
You will wonder, perhaps during a moment when the Kraffts paddle out onto a lake of acid in a rickety rubber dinghy, why they're doing this. Why did they have to get so close to instantaneous death? That thrill-seeking component isn't fully explored (maybe it can't be), and a late-act pivot to chastened responsibility — after mudslides from a 1985 Colombian eruption claimed 22,000 lives and the Kraffts' warnings went unheeded — feels tacked on. Better to commit to the couple's implicit philosophy, a life perched precariously between safety and self-immolation. Already an extremely French cocktail, Fire of Love gets a final dash of existentialism that makes it linger on the tongue: if Godard had a thing for science. Grade: A-