Early in Flames, we see the film’s co-writers, co-editors, co-directors, and co-stars, Zefrey Throwell and Josephine Decker, in the first of many compromising positions. Decker’s hanging off a bed upside down and naked, while Throwell, standing right-side up, has comically unglamorous sex with her, his pumping ass facing the camera while they both laugh. We’re seeing a real side of sex that Joe Swanberg explored in his early films but that’s not often acknowledged by cinema (which usually offers erotic and romantic titillation that’s self-seriously sanitized): its potentialities as a hang-out activity, when one’s grown so comfortable with a partner that self-consciousness eases and pleasure deepens. Knowledge that one doesn’t have to elicit an orgasm per minute from their partner is freedom—a step toward lovers allowing themselves to be human in one another’s company.
This intimacy, however, is partially an illusion. Throwell and Decker never entirely lower their guard, as they’re obviously aware that a camera is in the room with them. Flames was shot on and off over a period of several years as an experiment in creating an in-the-moment account of a relationship. As Throwell and Decker say in couple’s therapy near the end of the film, that aspiration almost certainly doomed their romance, because neither of them could be sure of what’s “real,” though one also assumes that that was the point of their relationship. Throwell doesn’t know when Decker is authentically confiding in him or when she’s playing to the camera, and vice versa, or even if there’s an importance to this distinction. Compounding this insecurity is the fact that Throwell and Decker are both performance artists, living perpetually in a blur of life and art, and that Decker becomes an acclaimed filmmaker and actress over the course of shooting Flames.
The film is one of those documentaries that’s intended to eat itself alive, then, seeking to mine the clarifying truth that paradoxically arises from its failure to achieve unvarnished objectivity, which doesn’t exist. This is an increasingly common kind of modern nonfiction film, embodied by Kate Plays Christine, which serves as a logical and intuitive outgrowth of our society of media surveillance. People want to be seen, as we commoditize visibility in an age in which everyone’s visible, which also serves as an incessant reminder of our collective, inherent ordinariness. Though pop culture also abounds in compensating martyr tales that assert our specialness, refuting the aforementioned evidence to the contrary. This stew of conflicting implications inspires a cultural whiplash that’s a breeding ground for estrangement and insecurity, leading to lives spent as voyeurs witnessing other lives that appear to satisfy the impossibly inchoate standards we’ve set for ourselves. This atmosphere has understandably imperiled any idea of “truth”—an instability with which our most ambitious and sensitive young filmmakers are in tune.
Flames can’t decide whether it’s a document of a relationship or a performative stunt intended to highlight the inherent narcissism of new romance, and this indecision has been consciously captured by Throwell and Decker. This mixture of intentionality and spontaneity is head-spinning, and conjures a barely controlled and intensely figurative chaos. The film’s most evocative and ambiguous moments suggest that all romance is performance art, even if staged for an audience of two. Throwell and Decker dare you to find them rarefied and precious, as they’re hip and attractive artists in New York City who can apparently afford to go to the Maldives on a whim so as to prove something about their relationship to themselves. Early in the film, we see them playing with sock puppets as they lay under the covers naked in bed, enacting a broad sex sketch in which Throwell is a stereotypically randy Frenchman. Such moments are poignant and insufferable in a manner that’s truthful to obsequious couples in the thrall of self-love.
Near its midway point, Flames grows tougher, weirder, and more ambiguous, casting much of its early cuteness in a starker light. Throwell and Decker are riding high until their relationship curdles off screen, and a flash forward shows the filmmakers a few years later, watching this footage, which they’re editing into the film we’re watching, commenting on events that we’ve yet to see. The cause of the couple’s dissolution is mysterious to them but may be more explicable to their audience. Based on the footage we see, Throwell and Decker are drawn to emotional extremes in the tradition of many artists, and appear incapable of experiencing simple and behaviorally unadorned moments, as every gesture must be grand, tragic, and their version of fascinating. Throwell and Decker appear incapable of unceremoniously inhabiting space, and their relationship collapses under the subsequent strain, though there’s also a profound sense of none of this is being real anyway. Ironically, the scenes in which the directors question the reality of their relationship seem more staged than any other moments in the film. Hyper-reality has a way of looking false, as we’re conditioned to think of “realism” in terms of smoothly modulated fiction.
As with many experimental nonfiction films, it’s beside the point to fact-check Flames, despite the pretense that Throwell and Decker make of doing just that. Reality becomes so muddy here that we’re left with a sensorial tapestry of vividly rendered scenes, anecdotes, and grace notes. The film’s second half dives deep into Throwell and Decker’s respective performance arts, which finds them getting lost again, disoriented from the boundary between fact and myth. A performance piece in which Throwell, Decker, and friends play strip poker on display for passersby in New York City culminates in an unforgettable image of Decker, naked except for a gecko mask, pressing against the glass window of the room, feeling exploited, and rebelling against Throwell and her snapshot-taking audience. In another piece, Throwell crawls along the streets of NYC, possibly in a gesture of self-laceration.
Stylistically, Flames bears a great resemblance to Decker’s other films, reveling in an unhinged and musical rhythm that suggests the work of Terrence Malick, with an object-centric hardness that’s reminiscent of the cinema of Chris Marker and Robert Greene. Decker’s formalism is extremely and sensually textural, emphasizing micro minutiae, fluidly alternating between wide landscapes and close-ups of faces, fingers, feet, and architecture and furniture that’s imbued with symbolic emotional force, such as a concrete table and chair set in which the table has been knocked over. But for all of her influences, Decker has one of the most personal and recognizable aesthetics in contemporary cinema, an aesthetic that defies description, an expansive sense of staging that flirts with a true merging of stream-of-consciousness with pop. Flames exhilaratingly reveals a portion of this sensibility’s birth, in which notions of self and society and reality and illusion become indistinguishable, achieving a purity of resonant mystery.
The Tribeca Film Festival runs from April 19—30.