Review: ‘Flames’

Hot Docs 2017

5 mins read

(USA, 86 min.)
Dir. Zefrey Throwell, Josephine Decker
Programme: Artscapes (International Premiere)


Just what in blazes is Flames? Is it a drama? A mockumentary? A doc? Or is it just self-indulgent nonsense? It might be a little bit of all these things as Zefrey Throwell and Josephine Decker mash Chris Marker with mumblecore. This boundary-pushing film defies categorisation. One thing is certain: Flames is among the more aesthetically and thematically ambitious films at Hot Docs.

Let’s just call Flames a hybrid film for the sake of convenience since it combines elements of documentary and performance as ex-lovers Throwell and Decker decide to run with the foolhardy idea of capturing every moment of their relationship on camera. It doesn’t come as a surprise when things start to crumble, but the big bombshell comes from how long the pair stays together to see the project through to completion. Their romance lasts a year, but production goes on for almost six years. It’s a marathon of a break-up that earns Decker credit as co-director “for a loooooooooong time.”

The couple seems perfectly comfortable exposing themselves on camera both physically and emotionally. Flames frequently shows the lovers in various positions of coital ecstasy, which are cut together with harsh and kinetic edits to strip away any filters of sensuous passion, as the pair engages in some hard core lovemaking. The intimately explicit film captures moments of crisis that arise in any relationship that is so intensely physical; perhaps the most problematic is the scene in which Throwell’s condom snaps during their lovemaking and Decker retreats to the tub to flush out the risk of pregnancy. This moment might be the first turning point in their relationship as Decker breaks down and sobs that she doesn’t want to have an abortion. Throwell doesn’t say anything, but he perfectly hits his mark as he calmly struts over to embrace her. He seems more concerned about getting the right composition for the shot than he does for his former lover’s care.

Both Throwell and Decker are artists. He’s a photographer and she’s an actor, indie film director and performance artist. They maintain constant awareness of the camera during the shoot. As the film cuts around its fractured time structure and inserts “present-day” scenes of the ex-couple watching the footage in an editing suite, the presence of the camera becomes increasingly significant. There’s an element of performance in every scene of the film as one of the lovers/filmmakers always seems to be putting on an act or playing a character. This role-playing puts a strain on their romance since neither one, Decker especially, seems comfortable forging a relationship with someone who seems only 80-90% real.

The elliptical style of the film weaves through memories and emotions as the couple attempts to make sense of their whirlwind project and romance. Flames uses an essay film structure as the film jives through the cutting. Jarring ruptures, off-kilter cinematographer and hypnotic music combine to turn a disastrous trip to the Maldives into a week from hell. So much tension erupts between the couple that an entire political revolution passes them by.

As they make sense of the breakdown of their relationship, Flames illustrates how art and passion both blind us to the very things before our eyes. If the action of Flames consistently resembles drama, there’s still a fascinating element of documentary within the film’s hybridity as it captures the dissolution of a relationship and the ephemeral nature of romance.

Flames screens:
-Friday, May 5 at TIFF Bell Lightbox at 9:15 PM

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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