“Flames” co-directors Josephine Decker and Zefrey Throwell have created something truly unique with their new docudrama, a word and genre that typically should be weighed heavily before being written as a descriptor. For good or for ill, depending on how gratuitously self-indulgent you find their filmed voyage of their passionate first months of uninterrupted love and inevitable disintegration, “Flames” is without a doubt unlike any other film released in recent memory.
Perhaps this is because one of the figureheads behind the project wasn’t a filmmaker, but an artist; Throwell, a conceptually ambitious performance artist weaves the story together with an elegant flow that bucks formal narrative structure. The film intertwines documented moments of joy and sorrow along with moments of choreographed artistry.
Filmed periodically over the course of five years, “Flames” tracks the relationship of real life couple, Decker and Throwell, frankly capturing everything from their white hot lust at the beginning of the relationship, their questioning over their partnership in a spur of the moment trip to the Maldives, to the bitter and entangled end as their short but fiery relationship comes to a resentful end. Having already committed to filming their relationship up until that point, they continue to press on with recording footage, giving themselves time, space and a new directorial perspective to reflect on their relationship to recount just where and why things went wrong.
A personal manifesto of heartache, “Flames” toes the line of being so personal that it loses its ability to engage with the audience, almost condemning itself to becoming a film strictly made for the filmmakers and no one else. Pointedly and uncomfortably voyeuristic, “Flames” isn’t here to hand-hold its viewers through the sometimes tiresome process of watching these two individuals endure their own heartache, but rather offer up an image of one love story with universal themes.
Helped tremendously by some wonderfully seamless editing and the stunning work done by cinematographer Ashely Connor, the film is a beautiful to watch even as we’re watching countless ugly moments unfold onscreen. If anything, there’s an argument to be made that despite the already slight running time of just barely 90 minutes it could’ve been cut down even further, without having to rely on surreal interludes that don’t help build the overall narrative of what happens when a love story doesn’t have a neat ending. The greatest triumphs of the film is how unrelenting it is in demonstrating that there were moments of performance on Decker and Throwell’s parts when it came to being in front of the camera, as well as inescapable times where both party showcased the venomous parts of their personalities that aided in poisoning the relationship If nothing else, “Flames” is a remarkable in capturing the thought that love is messy and sometimes fails us.
Far from being a perfect film and wearing its shortcomings with confidence, “Flames” is a film very worthy of curiosity. Succinct in its storytelling structure while simultaneously offering up some big ideas about love, life and moving on, the film imagines itself as its title, capturing the bright and swirling lights of love as a freshly lit match in equal measure with the billowing smoke that comes after it’s gone up in flames or burned to the ground. [B]