I hadn't known that Claire Simon had only made documentaries before making On Fire (2006), but it was quite clear even while watching the film. Simon and her photographer Pascale Granel shoot their scenes in tight medium shots and unobtrusive long takes. Reality seems taken for granted, and a detail—the subject—is pin-pointed and honed in on by the filmmakers. Here that detail is the summer boredom cum romantic delusion of teenage Livia (Camille Varenne) after she is rescued from being tossed off her horse by a local, middle-aged, and married firefighter (Gilbert Maki).
A technique that would appear like impressionism in that other Claire of French cinema finds, instead, the minutia of the teenager's life and her small town to subtly but expressively flesh out a story that is in essence a fairly conventional one. The contrast in the girl's horseback riding against the local Moroccan teenage boys fluency with their scooters; the aggravation and settled states of war between Livia and her divorced parents; small bursts of fighting and kissing amongst the teens—all come through vividly and truly because the film is created in such a way to give just as much importance to the ambiance of location and society as it does Livia's passion.
Eventually, of course, the plot must assert itself if only to end things, but right when conventions rear their ugly head and Simon and fellow screenwriters Nadège Trébal and Jérôme Beaujour show they may not have drama down as much as they have real life, Simon's documentary past literally catches a flame. A massive amount of footage of a forest fire raging near a provincial town, culled from who knows where, is masterfully interpolated into the climax of the film. Less plausible is Livia's irresponsible call for her beloved fireman (by setting a fire!) and the more overarching expression of wayward teenage purpose and romanticism. But one may easy let these weaknesses go, as Livia’s ill-fated final embrace with the fireman of her dreams comes amidst a true forest fire, so seamlessly weaved into the fiction of the story that one wonders which came first, the fire or the fiction.
On Fire was seen at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's series, Directors’ Fortnight at 40.