Critipeg: Fire of Love

★★★★ out of 5


Plays at Cinematheque Aug. 19 to Sept. 4

For those of us living on the Canadian Prairies, volcanoes can seem as distant and fantastical as Atlantis. But for a significant number of the world’s population, volcanic eruptions are a very real threat. These sleeping giants create new earth but, in doing so, can destroy everything they touch. But for Katia and Maurice Krafft, volcanoes were a wellspring of love.

Fire of Love, the newest documentary from director Sara Dosa, is about the life, work and romance of the Kraffts. Baby boomers from Alsatian France, the two fell head over heels while exploring their mutual enthusiasm for volcanoes while at university in the late 1960s. They made it their life’s work to study volcanoes, documenting their cataclysmic eruptions through film, photography and scientific metrics. Their career ended with their deaths in 1991 in the eruption of Mount Unzen in Japan.

Some viewers will recognize the Kraffts from Werner Herzog’s excellent 2016 documentary Into the Inferno, but the married couple are the sole focus of <i>Fire of Love</i>. Dosa and her editors (Erin Casper and Jocelyne Chaput) make skilled, fluid use of the Kraffts’ extensive archive of film footage, images and writings. The filmmaker avoids new interviews or footage, only occasionally cutting to bits of original animation to illustrate subterranean activity that can’t be photographed.

The Kraffts’ footage itself is remarkable. The images of volcanic eruptions, towering geysers and flowing rivers of red hot lava are interspersed with the antics of the couple themselves, who get absurdly close to the maelstrom. Sometimes, it’s to gather readings, samples or recordings. Other times, it’s to playfully interact with these dangerous materials.

But there’s just as much footage of them in their daily lives, driving or trekking to craters, frying eggs on hot lava rocks or foolishly rowing a rubber dinghy across a lake of acid. These moments are shot with a keen cinematic eye. The warm, pastel texture of 1970s 16mm film embodies Katia and Maurice’s whimsy. They radiate with the energy of French college kids of the late ’60s. You wouldn’t expect to spot them at a volcano as much as a nouvelle vague screening or an anti-war protest. They maintain this vibe their entire lives. Katia is short and mousy, with a pixie cut and cute glasses. Maurice is a large man with a crown of poofy curls and a face like Jean Gabin or Spencer Tracy.

Despite the obvious scientific drive behind their work, it’s clear the Kraffts would be just as drawn to the majesty and poetry of volcanoes if there were no science involved. They love them because they are in awe of their power. Both of them, but Maurice in particular, romanticize and mythologize their work. Maurice speaks multiple times of his plan to build a special canoe and sail it down a river of lava. This serves no scientific purpose. He’s simply too in love with the symbolism of the image to recognize that it’s a stupid idea.

The film’s narration, read by artist Miranda July, is written with similar poetry and symbolism. It honours the Kraffts’ spirit while only occasionally taking it too far (lines like “They spend their lives studying the Earth’s heartbeat, but now they feel their own hearts beating and breaking” get a bit cringey). But Fire of Love is a fascinating and appropriately romantic telling of this dangerous and eccentric love story.

Published in Volume 76, Number 25 of The Uniter (May 31, 2022)

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