It can be viewed as “brave,” undoubtedly: documenting the rise and fall of your romantic relationship on camera, with nary a sexual episode or screaming argument kept private.
It can also be seen as, well, narcissistic. And, if it comments on itself, insufferably so.
Zefrey Throwell and Josephine Decker’s Flames is pegged as a “real romance.” And it is, in the sense that Throwell and Decker, like so many sensitive, naive young people before them, were a couple and broke up. But Flames, though energetically crafted, erotic, and at times heartfelt, is an exasperatingly esoteric meditation on love. (This sort of self-inflicted exposé is something of the flavor of the month, with i hate myself 🙂, Joanna Arnow’s post-breakup dissection piece, currently polarizing the critics).
Throwell is a successful, rather cocky video artist whose voyeuristic projects often showcase him and several peerlessly gorgeous fellow New Yorkers frolicking in the nude. Decker is an actress, indie filmmaker, and performance artist who can be seen in some of Throwell’s most graphic productions (one was sponsored by a porn site). As a couple, they cut loose their own way — like visiting the Maldives on a whim (Decker throws a dart at a map on the ceiling and it lands there, so that’s where they go). Or partaking in a weeklong, publicly advertised exhibit in which they and their buddies play strip poker behind a see-through storefront window.
Flames never quite transcends such whimsies. The sex scenes are titillating — the filmmakers favor an impressive variety of positions and locations — but there’s little sense of vulnerability in the exposure of true-blue exhibitionists. We see Decker in a few decidedly unscripted moments of doubt and trepidation, but Throwell never lets us forget he’s an artist and a performer. On camera, he’s a manic goof-off, and when he lets down his guard, it’s usually to whine or act defensive. And as a director, he employs attention-getting trickery — dialogue muted with a blast of white noise; kaleidoscopic mirror effects; calendar dates scrawled in red paint — that diminishes any feeling of loss as the couple comes apart.
It’s also frustrating that precious little of Throwell and Decker’s actual time together is shown. The majority of Flames is devoted to the two reflecting on their tempest-in-a-teapot past (often in the editing room — another cute device). We glimpse a playful adventurousness during scenes of their courtship, but Throwell never seems especially emotionally invested in the relationship, at least not in the footage shown here. The film creates the impression that, even while dating Decker, he played this movie out in his head, expediting the breakup so he could create art from it.
That said, some of the post-breakup footage is exhilarating. Even after splitting up, Decker and Throwell — for the purposes of the film — meet every so often, sometimes divulging unknown, suddenly piercing betrayals on camera. (Decker’s reeling, sobbing dizzy spell after one such revelation — amid an uncaring Times Square throng on a frigid, gray day — is the most lasting shot in the film.) And long after both have taken new lovers, they continue to visit a couples’ therapist, the ultimate — and most expensive — form of closure out there. The best thing about Flames is that it’s not a particularly angry or even remorseful film. It may very well encourage bitter ex-lovers everywhere to rekindle platonic love — or at least respect — for one another. And at times, it makes falling out of love seem like an enviable, knowledge-gaining — even beautiful — endeavor to go through.
Most of Flames, unfortunately, will leave everyone outside the filmmakers’ milieu in the cold.
Directed by Zefrey Throwell and Josephine Decker
Screens April 30, the Tribeca Film Festival