The visually spellbinding volcano documentary “Fire of Love” chronicles a magnificent obsession and might even make that obsession your own. It didn’t have to work very hard in my case. I was already a budding volcanophile when I decided, at age 8, that I had never seen anything more beautiful than the lava geysers raining down on Kilauea, a hyperactive Hawaiian monster that I quickly declared my favorite volcano in the world. (He was one of many contenders.) I wasn’t much older when I learned that one of Kilauea’s longest recorded eruptions had actually started the day I was born, one of those funny coincidences that seemed oddly prophetic at the time.
My 8-year-old self, no less than today, would have been thrilled with the majestic images of “Fire of Love,” which deserve to be seen on the biggest screen possible. (The film hits theaters this week; it will be available on Disney+ later this year.) The footage was filmed by intrepid French volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft, who pursued their shared passion to the end (or at least until ‘at the edges) of the Earth, where the crust cracks and rock slides against molten rock.
Katia, a geochemist, and Maurice, a geologist, met as students in 1966, married in 1970, and spent the rest of their lives visiting active volcanoes all over the world, walking to rivers of lava and steaming craters and filming what they saw.
They are the subjects of this film and, to a large extent, its authors. Beginning with a gorgeous fire and ice prologue in which we see the Kraffts pushing an unreliable truck up a snow-capped Icelandic mountain, “Fire of Love” draws on hundreds of hours of 16mm footage they toured for more than two decades.
And like a scientist making the most of an incomplete but priceless fossil record, director Sara Dosa (“The Seer and the Unseen”) charts a clear and captivating narrative path through the Krafft archives. Its tools of connection include the poetic narration of Miranda July, the inventive animated segments of Lucy Munger, the meticulous sound design of Patrice LeBlanc and, above all, the propulsive editing of Erin Casper and Jocelyne Chaput, which won an award at the Festival du Sundance movie this year. (Casper and Chaput are also credited as the film’s writers, along with Dosa and Shane Boris.)
“Fire of Love” thus wants us to see the world and its wonders as Katia and Maurice Krafft saw them, to reap the fruits of their know-how and share their astonishment. (The emotional swells of Brian Eno’s “The Big Ship” and Ennio Morricone’s “The Ecstasy of Gold” help direct our admiration, as does an exquisite score by Nicolas Godin of French duo Air.)
As its title makes clear, the film also seeks to cast the Kraffts as well-matched protagonists in a most unusual love story, one that found its grandest culmination in breathtaking eruptions of lava. and ashes.
“Fire of Love” is sometimes a rom-com, based on the affable, TV-friendly chemistry between smiley, gregarious Maurice and bird-like little Katia. In the end, when he recounts the deaths of his subjects when Mount Unzen erupted in Japan in 1991, the story turned into something darker, though the Kraffts themselves might have s stop before you call it a tragedy.
Their lifelong dedication to “a kamikaze existence in the beauty of volcanic things” seems both sweeping and eerily familiar, given the recent glut of documentaries about thrill seekers and extreme sports enthusiasts, like “The Rescue” and “Free Solo”. (Any number of Werner Herzog movies come to mind, including his 2016 volcano documentary, “Into the Inferno,” which features a segment on the Kraffts.)
Like some of the subjects of these earlier works, Katia and Maurice pursued their calling with the intensity of true believers, as well as an undisguised impatience with anyone or anything else that might demand their time.
“We no longer see the world with all its mediocrities,” Katia is heard saying at one point. Her husband shared her view of volcanoes as superior companionship, a refuge from the boredom of human concerns, but he also possessed a reckless side that even eluded him.
In one of the film’s most poignant episodes, shot in Indonesia in 1971, Maurice incurs Katia’s ire by sailing a dinghy through a huge lake of highly concentrated sulfuric acid. The footage from this adventure is exquisite and unsettling, especially when the camera pulls back to reveal Maurice and a colleague sitting in their small, vulnerable craft, shrouded in the poisonous mists of a lake that could eat them alive.
Like many of the other images here – including one that finds Katia straddling the edge of a crater, then arcing down into the billowing smoke below – this scene shows an elegance of composition and an intuitive sense of visual scale.
Despite this, Maurice declares at one point: “I am not a filmmaker. I am a wandering volcanologist forced to make movies to wander. That he could have been; to fund their many expeditions, he and Katia tapped into every possible source of income, publishing books of their photographs and traveling the lecture circuit. But the visions triggered in “Fire of Love” suggest they took their art as seriously as they took their science.
July’s storytelling works beautifully in concert with the images, often drawing our attention to specific details in the setting and questioning the motives and circumstances that might have produced them.
In the absence of conventional talking heads, his thoughtful and melancholy phrasing achieves a lyricism that harkens back to a classic tradition of French documentary cinema. She’s a perfect fit for this story, given the nostalgic romanticism and adventurous, searching spirit of her own work as an actor, artist, and filmmaker. She also directs the film through a crucial tonal and moral transition.
“Volcanoes must destroy to create, but must this uncontrolled cycle take human life?” asks July, expressing the Kraffts’ horror at the death toll demanded by the eruptions of Mount St. Helens in 1980 and, in particular, Nevado del Ruiz in 1985, which killed more than 20,000 people in Armero, Colombia. .
Their subsequent determination to sound the alarm in hotspots around the world, to use their authority and scientific knowledge to save lives, gave new meaning to their own lives and deaths; it also separates Dosa’s film from some of those other nature-loving daredevil documentaries.
The fire of Katia and Maurice Krafft’s obsession consumed them, in large part, as it finally restored their kinship with humanity.
“Fire of Love”
Evaluation: PG, for thematic material including disturbing imagery and brief smoking
Operating time: 1 hour 33 mins
Playing: Begins July 6 at AMC Sunset 5, Los Angeles