The most impressive spectacle film of the summer hasn’t cost hundreds of millions of dollars nor has it employed state-of-the-art CGI to invent bizarre new worlds and fantastical creatures. It’s Sara Dosa’s documentary “Fire of Love,” an overwhelming visceral experience culled together from live and breathtaking footage filmed at active volcanos by daredevil volcanologists who tragically died decades ago.
“Fire of Love” tells the story of Katia and Maurice Krafft, who fell in love over their shared love of volcanoes and dedicated their entire lives to getting up close and personal with magma flows, acid lakes and other natural phenomena that boggle and terrify the mind — and the body doesn’t much care for them either; you can literally see the flesh peeling off of Maurice’s leg after he idly stands in boiling mud.
The Kraffts were no mere hobbyists: They were leading figures in volcanology, filming extensive documentary footage, writing detailed books and appearing on television to expand mainstream awareness of the wonders and dangers of volcanos.
It’s easy to see why they were media darlings. Their quirky sense of humor, charming outfits and whimsical footage would make them right at home in a Wes Anderson movie. One half expects Steve Zissou to show up at any moment and make things awkward.
What’s more, the Kraffts had no interpersonal conflicts to speak of. “Fire of Love” isn’t interested in inflating the drama of their lives. The tense, enigmatic whispers of Miranda July supply all the tension Dosa’s film needs in the quieter moments. If anything, the Kraffts even seem peaceful about their seemingly inevitable fate, speaking candidly about the very likely scenario that a volcano will probably kill them someday, probably at the same time, but that it’s the only way they’d want to go.
And although we learn very quickly that the Kraffts would perish suddenly at the Mount Unzen eruption in Japan in 1991, that information does not undermine the death-defying wonder of the documentary’s imagery. Hypnotic footage of molten rock undulates like an H.R. Giger creation, with unthinkably gigantic walls of magma towering over the pair of scientists. To watch “Fire of Love” is to take a sight-seeing expedition through the pits of hell, but with infectiously cheerful tour guides who’ll make you stop worrying and love the lava bombs.
It’s unexpectedly easy to get wrapped up in the cheerful, albeit shockingly dangerous pursuits of Katia and Maurice Krafft, so you might as well do it. “Fire of Love” has nothing but affection for these two thrill-seeking scientists, who initially view modern society as nothing more than a means to their end. They study volcanoes, they return to France to make enough money so they study more volcanoes. Rinse, repeat.
The Kraffts seem truly alive when they are hopping on melting boulders. Maurice even fantasizes about building a canoe sturdy enough to travel 15km down a lava flow, which probably wasn’t a very good idea but would surely have looked marvelous in his camera.
The couple’s awe-inspiring footage would be a gift to any filmmaker, and hours could no doubt be spent just watching the world’s largest and deadliest lava lamps bubble, spill, crackle and steam. Director Dosa (“The Seer & The Unseen”) understands that romance is fundamental to elevating “Fire of Love” beyond a gorgeous nature film. She savvily blends an eccentric romance and environmental study with a satisfying character arc, in which the Kraffts gradually recognize the importance of using their obsessive expertise to save human lives from bureaucracies that had done little (or nothing) to successfully predict or evacuate communities from impending doom.
“Fire of Love” is a wholly satisfying, overwhelming documentary, as disarming as it is explosive. To know the Kraffts is to share their lava affair, and sharing their journey brings you face-to-face with alarming majesties, more striking and more profound than any of the fictional marvels you’ve seen in recent memory — maybe, ever, even.
“Fire of Love” opens Wednesday in New York and Los Angeles.