Festival opens with two addictive documentaries
You want relationships that erupt? The Sundance Film Festival opened on Thursday with two addictive documentaries examining earth-shaking marriages. The first, and most literally incendiary, was Fire of Love, Sara Dosa’s enthralling look at French volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft. She was a geochemist, he was a geologist, and together they shared a white-hot devotion to each other as well as to the study of hypnotic lava flows and violent tectonic tensions. The second was explosive yet painfully chilly: Ed Perkin’s The Princess, a clear-eyed highlight reel of Lady Diana’s very public marriage right up to her separation, divorce, and grisly death.
At least the volcanologists knew the danger ahead. Three decades’ worth of vivid photographs and breathtaking footage that they shot themselves reveals gorgeous destruction, up close and personal. Scarlet molten mouths spew forth deadly volcano bombs that weigh as much as a ton. Streams of lava shoot out in parabolic arcs. Rivers of rock flow down mountainsides, sometimes even into the oceans where they steam, sputter, and finally harden like mammoth twisted taffy. “It’s a question of calculated risk,” explains Maurice, who found his soulmate in fellow Alsace native Katia: deciding to forgo children, the pair, quick to smile and always side by side, concentrated on the visceral thrill of being dwarfed by grand geologic spectacle.
They braved the most harrowing dangers, putting themselves in peril time and again, as they strolled by stygian ribbons of intense heat and climbed down into enormous, and enormously unstable, basins. One bubbling cauldron of mud spat onto Maurice’s leg, blistering his entire shin with its 140-degree heat. A volcanologist baptism, he shrugged. It also didn’t stop him from paddling a rubber boat across an acid lake. Their first love were red volcanos, their crimson expulsions being far more predictable and much easier to navigate. But their later obsessions were the volatile and far more deadly grey volcanos, mountains like Mt. Saint Helens that erupted with the force of 25,000 atomic bombs and a blast range of 30 kilometers.
The Kraffts were whimsical, and, with their red wool caps, gallic patter, and state-of-the-art ’70s scientific adventure gear, seemed like real-life Wes Anderson eccentrics. They also chose rocks over people, opting for profound natural awe over the destructive political pettiness that shaped their Vietnam-era formative years. “We were disappointed in humanity,” said Maurice.
You can’t blame them after watching the inhumanity of The Princess, a sobering portrait of society’s obsession with curdled fame, featuring Diana Spencer as the 20-year-old sacrificial lamb who marries 32-year-old Charles, Prince of Wales. “Fairy tales usually end, at this point, with happily ever after,” intones a voice as we watch breathless television coverage of their 1981 wedding at St. Paul’s Cathedral, followed by their exit via horse-drawn carriage, footman included. If only. For them, happily ever after was a notoriously endless misery—at least until their 1996 divorce and her 1997 death-by-paparazzi.
The Lady Di slow-motion debacle is a tale so time-worn, it’s practically threadbare. But this documentary, composed completely of archival material, shrewdly forgoes talking heads to let the video footage and tabloid headlines speak for themselves—and damn themselves in the telling. Here, the cold hard images show the incessant, intense, venal interest in a preternaturally charismatic woman whose natural compassion clashed violently with the staid House of Windsor. No matter that she hugged AIDS patients and African victims of landmines, Diana was a bulimic adulterer. “I noticed she wore a lot of make-up,” one female reporter clucks about her in an unguarded moment. It’s a media-age tele-photogenic obsession that enriches coffers and destroys lives.
“The world’s most famous dysfunctional family,” jeers a press that enhanced and sustained that fame and dysfunction. Stripped of commentary, the raw footage reveals just how much the presumably stoic Royals subtly wore their tortured emotions on their faces and in their body language. Recent pop-culture fictionalizations have added too many layers of speculation and sentiment to the hoary story. This sober compilation is far more clarifying; and its cumulative effect is damning all over again.
So begins Sundance, kicking off with a bang that will hopefully last over the next week. Indie-film mavens were crossing their fingers for a 2022 in-person edition, but Omicron played spoiler at the last minute and forced the Park City bacchanal back into Covid-phobic virtual mode. Not a bad consolation, since their website’s sturdy streaming platform made its sterling debut last year and, with Day One smoothly delivered, seems poised for another logistical triumph. It’s a blessing and a curse: the more we get used to this interface, the less we might want to actually be face-to-face.