You know you’re not at a typical post-screening Q&A when someone in the audience asks the filmmakers, “Do you still love each other?”
Zefrey Throwell and Josephine Decker had just premiered Flames, a nakedly honest (and I do mean nakedly honest) portrait of their nearly one-year relationship, and the question could have just as easily been, “Do you still hate each other?”
The film takes the warts-and-all approach to love stories employed by shows like HBO’s Togetherness— but here, it’s all the more raw because Throwell and Decker, both performance artists and filmmakers, were an actual couple who documented their actual relationship from its annoyingly cuddly-poo beginnings to its cringe-inducing flame out. The tension carried right into the Q&A. Throwell said the film was “really painful to watch with a bunch of people. It’s the dirtiest of laundry.”
Decker, who had given Throwell final cut, downplayed Throwell’s embarrassment: “He took out all the parts where he’s really being an asshole, you guys.”
When Flames was accepted by the Tribeca Film Festival, the filmmakers disagreed (no surprise) about whether it should be considered a narrative feature or a documentary, Throwell said. It’s being described by Tribeca as a “docu-art hybrid.” The first scenes—in which a condom breaks during hilariously explicit sex and Decker struggles with a decision to take the morning-after pill— were a mere recreation of actual events. (Commissioned by MoMA, Throwell, who had just started dating Decker, decided to recreate the “traumatic things” they had recently experienced with the broken condom.) But the rest of the relationship was filmed as it unfolded in 2011–2012. (Update: Press materials say that some of the life events shown were recreated for the film soon after they happened.) Greenpoint cinematographer Ashley Connor followed the love-struck couple into the bedroom, the bathroom, and even on airplanes as they took a spontaneous trip to the Maldives together that nearly brought the couple to blows.
“She was with us quite a bit of the time, especially when we were dating,” Throwell said. “It was like an emotional threesome.”
He’s not kidding when he says threesome— the sex scenes are pretty graphic, given that this is merkin-free, real-life documentation (and given that Decker’s mom was in the audience last night). But that doesn’t mean Decker is an exhibitionist a la Lena Dunham. She prefaced her comments at the Q&A by saying, “I feel exposed, you guys.” Even in the film itself, it’s clear she didn’t feel entirely comfortable with some of the places Throwell took things—particularly during a performance piece, staged just a few months into their relationship, that involved playing strip poker in a Tribeca storefront. During the Q&A, Decker said she didn’t realize that she’d have to get fully naked for the amusement of passersby on the other side of the window. (To add insult to injury, one of the other nude poker players is a woman that Throwell ended up dating after his relationship with Decker disintegrated.) That she felt “really frustrated and angry” about this is evident in the film.
For his part, Throwell defended the strip-poker piece as a “beautiful metaphor” about capitalist exploitation. That drew titters from the crowd at Cinépolis Chelsea, and some snark from Decker: “That piece changed the country’s economic policy, right?”
While Throwell’s stunt didn’t bring down Wall Street, his film is likely to make viewers take a hard look at their own relationships. Even after Decker leaves Throwell (she blames his quest to make a time-traveling sex movie, though this is never fully explained), they continue to film follow-up encounters, art therapy sessions in which they try to parse out what went wrong, and– in a fascinatingly meta twist– palpably tense and passive-aggressive editing sessions during which they bicker in front of their editor about what to include in the movie.
Decker described the process thusly: “Literally for four years [after the relationship ended], like every eight months I’d get a phone call from Zefrey promising that this would be the last time we would shoot, that we’d never have to do it again, and then…”
Among the things they try to hash out during these follow-up sessions: Did using their relationship as film fodder set it up to fail? Did having cameras present change the nature of their interaction?
Throwell addressed that during the Q&A. “Am I acting different because I’m standing in front of people?” he asked himself. “Probably. But I’m still the same old jerk.”
In the end, however, Decker said she was proud of Throwell for sticking with a project that she once wanted to discard. Throwell, in turn, said the film was “the most aggressive form of therapy that I’ve ever been subjected to.” And apparently he has learned from it. He hasn’t filmed his new partner, and they’ve been together for four and a half years.
“Flames” continues at Tribeca Film Festival through April 30.