“I love you, but I think you’re a really terrible person.”
One of the reasons the documentary & the essay film are becoming one of the most exciting forms of cinematic expression in recent years is they’re accepting the blurred line between reality & crafted narrative as a feature instead of a bug. Recent titles like Faces Places, Rat Film, Swagger, and The World is Mine are entirely unconcerned with distinguishing documented truth from the manipulated fictions necessary to tell a linear story, which has opened the medium up to a looser, more exciting kind of creativity. Usually, though, the question of what’s reality & what’s manipulated fiction only has an effect on the film as a finished product, not on its subjects as real-life people. The incredible, heartbreaking, fascinating thing about the recent documentary Flames is how that dynamic is dangerously flipped around. A collaboration between two filmmakers & conceptual artists documenting the rise & fall of their own romance, Flames presents a scenario where not being able to tell what’s genuine & what’s performance art can have emotionally devastating effects on a real-life relationship. Instead of reality being manipulated to change the course of the documentary, the film forces its own narrative gray area on the real-life relationship of its subjects, changing their fundamental dynamic in a way that cannot be measured or reversed. Instead of merely manipulating audience perception, the filmmakers manipulate their own understanding of what’s even happening in their own lives, turning the already volatile emotional powder keg of a passionate romance into a daily terror of bruised egos, questionable motives, and petty acts of self-serving cruelty. It’s deeply fascinating, but also deeply fucked up.
Artists Josephine Decker & Jeffrey Throwell attempt to document the entirety of their romantic life together, from start to end. This mission statement and a commitment to raw honesty make the project a kind of imitate exhibitionism. Snippets of their days drifting through political protests, basketball games, relay races, and other public events are frequently interrupted by much more private activities like unglamorous, unsimulated sex and crying alone in bed. The full sexy, goofy, passionate, combative, overwhelming spectrum of young love is on full display as the couple enjoys the early honeymoon period of their romance. The editing matches the energy of that excitement with rapid-fire interjections of detail-obsessed imagery, all culminating in an impulsive getaway to series of islands in the Indian Ocean. What’s interesting about the film, structurally, is that it continues to document their relationship long after the heated breakup that concludes that trip. Even though their romance technically only lasts eight months, the film documents a full five-year process of letting go & detangling. The broken condom & marriage proposal crises of their earliest stages give way to slower, more melancholy montages of two intensely linked people gradually drifting into separate spheres. The relationship isn’t truly over until early fights are relitigated for closure in therapy & editing room sessions that try to make sense of exactly what happened between them, the result of which is the movie itself. Unsurprisingly, the very act of bringing the remove of an art project collaboration into such an intimate exchange is significant to their ruin, as the camera’s presence raises issues of trust & obscured motives that are an absurd, immeasurable strain on an already nerve-racking experience. The movie doesn’t end until both artists are so sick of each other that they can’t stand to spend another minute collaborating on the doomed thing that keeps them tethered together, long after the exciting sweetness of that early love has soured.
Questions of what’s genuine and what’s performance aside, Flames is intoxicating as a pure sensory experience. The cameras are a hodgepodge of affordable digital technology, but the disparate images they capture of swimming dolphins, raw egg, unembarrassed sex, under-the-cover sock puppetry, and galactic air plane cabins amount to an impact that far outweighs those means. The images’ juxtaposition has a cumulative spiritual effect I haven’t seen accomplished on the screen since 20th Century Women, but I’m sure there are more forgiving Terence Mallick fans who catch that feeling far more often. The overall tone is one of menace & decay, though, even when the relationship is supposedly going well. One sequence in particular that details the world’s most horrific strip poker game had me crawling out of my skin more than any recent horror film I can name. Flames’s emotional honesty is a self-deprecating one. This is a film that knows its own existence had a negative, almost evil impact on a real-life experience and that no documentation of spontaneous beauty or tragic humor could ever make up for the emotional chaos it’s caused. I’m excited about the mixture of documented truth & performative fictions in the current state of the documentary as an art form, but Flames serves as a harrowing warning of how that dynamic can cause real world damage in a subject. Even more so than documenting the full life of a romance from fresh passion to embittered rot, the film is fascinating as an indictment of its own existence as a doomed thing that should have been abandoned in its earliest stages. In a strange turnaround of our usual dynamic, the impetus isn’t on the audience to determine how we are being manipulated, but on the filmmakers to unpack how they’ve manipulated themselves.