I am really pretty sure that I do not want to hang out with these people. I mean if these people really are these people. Which of course, we can’t really know, because Zefrey Throwell and Josephine Decker’s Flames, a hybrid documentary/narrative drama, presents to us two people who may or may not be who they depict themselves to be in the film. If they really are as emotionally turbulent and narcissistic as they portray themselves in the movie, then, yeah, no, I don’t want to hang out with them at all. At the same time, I would have to congratulate them in their unflinching bravery for exposing themselves so unflatteringly. Regardless of my thoughts on these human beings – or caricatures of human beings, as the case may be – there’s one thing which cannot be overstated: this is a remarkably good film, a very different sort of experiment, lovingly crafted, brilliantly edited, with a mesmerizing montage and multi-layered mode of audiovisual expression which is a marvel to behold.
The central plot of the film is easy: two real-life lovers fall hot and heavy in love and decide to capture their romance in real time as a documentary. The trouble is, the relationship crashes and burns in just a few months, leaving an unfinished film in its wake. Over the next five years, the former couple reconstructs what happened, blurring the lines between cinéma vérité and staged scenes. And they’re just the right couple to pull this off. Co-directors Throwell and Decker are in fact full-time professional filmmakers, performance and installation artists with wide success. Their indisputable talent shines in the work. This is a visually dazzling film. The camera often looks at common sights and turns them upside down and inside out, sometimes flickering us into vertigo, all to reflect the chaos of emotions running wild between the eponymous flames burning hot for each other, and ultimately exploding at each other when things go bad. Intercutting the meaty principle scenes with these disorienting optical forays spices up our perceptions. It’s a sort of game that happens between the film and the audience, a place to go to when the main narrative gets too familiar or stark. Snippets and impressions percolate away from written language and create a larger picture of this intense drama.
And things get really dramatic, really soon. Prepare to witness jarring scenes of the couple having sex – not regular sex – it’s almost at a genuinely daredevil level. No, this isn’t a porno, but it certainly edges up against those borders at times. Thankfully, there isn’t too much of this, and it really does serve a purpose. This film is all about vulnerability. These are people slicing themselves open on screen, going to a lot of trouble to show us in piercing detail all of their flaws and frailty. Consummate exhibitionists, one can be forgiven if these unfettered grandstanders rub you the wrong way (the prodigious amount of gratuitous nudity doesn’t help much, either). What really counts here is the true currency of the work: insight.
Regardless of what conclusions audience or performers come to about what makes these eccentric folks tick, the intensity of personal dissection you’ll see here is something cinema rarely offers. They’re not just documenting themselves, they are arting themselves to death, curating their raw emotions and denuded personas with all the tools of their mediums. Tearing each other and themselves apart, the viewer is witness to a remarkable slice of human psyche. Living alongside the aforementioned psychedelic wonderland imagery, which both tempers and augments this psychological vivisection, it’s all ultimately a deconstruction of two people’s vision of themselves. Naked and reprocessed, this exercise must have hurt quite a bit, and is testament to more than a little intrepidity on the part of the artists. Again, I might not want to hang out with these people. But I definitely want to hang out with their artistry and you should too. As Ms. Decker condemns her ex-beau for walking out on her at one point, “You learned who I was and you realized I wasn’t your fantasy.” This sums things up nicely. The film is here to rip away the delusions we all have about love and romantic tales, but also leaves behind a different kind of understanding which is, ultimately, very liberating.