24 Lies a Second: Mr (and Mrs) Lava Man

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Mr (and Mrs) Lava Man

More prime counter-programming material comes along in the form of Sara Dosa's Fire of Love, another example of just why many people keep going on about how we are currently living through the Golden Age of Feature Documentaries. This film was probably a particularly appealing project, as it's made up almost exclusively of thirty-year-old archive footage, which just needed editing together (and perhaps having a few captions and animated sequences added).

We can thank the French scientist couple of Maurice and Katia Krafft for all the film, by the way. The Kraffts were celebrities, sort of, in the world of vulcanology, and were never happier than when scrambling up the slopes of an erupting caldera or dodging lava bombs at close range. In addition to doing some genuinely valuable scientific research – the holy grail they ended up devoting their career to was trying to identify the 'trigger point' at which point a volcano became actively energetic and troublesome, information which would make evacuations and the saving of lives much easier – the couple managed to make a living filming and photographing volcanic events at extremely close range.

The film is up-front about the fact that their research led them to a fatal encounter with a pyroclastic flow on the slopes of Mount Unzen in June 1991, which you might expect would bring the mood down a bit. The general tone remains poetic, with a definite subtext of isn't-nature-incredible?, although this is fighting for space a tiny bit with what-a-powerfully-romantic-story-this-is!

Frankly, despite some heavy lifting from the title and a breathy, slightly pretentious voice-over from Miranda July (no-one else does breathy and pretentious quite as well), the notion of the film as an account of the Kraffts' love story never quite works. The material just isn't there – there's plenty of footage of Maurice cautiously making his way towards a crater, stopping only when his shoes spontaneously combust, but very little of the duo not being professional vulcanologists together. Even the script admits that no-one's quite sure how the Kraffts first met each other, and suggests that – in any case – this was always a marriage with three participants: Maurice, Katia, and whichever deadly geological event they were up close and personal with at that particular moment.

They don't appear to have been a particularly demonstrative couple, anyway – when they do talk about their relationship on camera, it's in rather joshing terms. Katia says she is quite happy to follow Maurice up the side of a cone, mainly because he weighs twice as much and so anywhere that doesn't collapse under his weight must be safe for her. Maurice comes back with a gag about how there are so few vulcanologists living together in the world. Why? They are constantly erupting at each other!

The jokes may not always sparkle but the footage shot by the Kraffts is truly breath-taking stuff, the natural world at its most terrifying and extreme. You only have to visit a place where the water boils on its way out of the ground to appreciate the almost mystical allure of this kind of site, but to build your life around visiting such immensely hazardous places is another matter entirely. At one point Maurice expresses a wish that he could eat rocks, which would mean that he never had to return to civilisation.

It seems like the Kraffts did their best to stay out in the wild anyway, funding their travels by selling photos and films of their work, as well as attempting serious scientific research. The film features a roll-call of all the volcanos they visited in the course of a two-decade career: Etna, Stromboli, Anak-Krakatau, Mount St Helens, and many more. The stunning images are probably the best reason for going to see this movie, although some of the most striking are not the work of the Kraffts – the pictures of the Mount St Helens eruption in 1980 are genuinely astonishing, but the couple were at home in France at the time. Not being there in person apparently left Maurice in the mood to commit a massacre, even though a close friend died in the eruption.

It may not have been Dosa's intention, but rather than a moving account of the relationship of two people united by their love of geophysics and near-death experiences, Fire of Love more often seems to be about the rather peculiar psychopathology of people who do this sort of thing. The film does make clear that the Kraffts did important scientific research on their various trips, but there does seem to have been a certain amount of legend-building going on to. The documentary points out the various ways in which the Kraffts' own films seem to have been rather artfully assembled, while Maurice seems to have enjoyed the idea of being a legendary daredevil at least as much as a respected scientist. The film sees him repeatedly talking about his plan to float down a river of lava in a metal canoe lined with asbestos blocks – this Quixotic, if not outright demented scheme never came to pass, though the film does include another almost-unbelievable exploit in which he and an assistant ended up adrift in a lake of sulphuric acid for three hours, with only a second-hand rubber dinghy between him and a fate probably best not contemplated ('Of course it was a second-hand dinghy, we weren't stupid,' says Maurice on the soundtrack).

In the end Maurice comes across as an engaging and charismatic fellow, though probably not someone you'd want to get stuck in a lift with. Katia is quieter, indulgent towards her husband, more aware of the ramifications of their work, perhaps. But the fact that Maurice at least was engaged in creating a public persona, and that the film is almost exclusively made up of their own material, means that any glimpses of who they really were as people are fleeting and slightly suspect. I had a much stronger emotional response to the footage of eruptions and the power of nature than I did to the human story – the film doesn't fit comfortably on the peg where the title and voice-over are trying to hang it. But the Kraffts' work speaks for itself, given half a chance.

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