Jean-Jacques Annaud’s dramatisation of the 2019 Notre-Dame fire holds a vice-like grip as it records the 12 hours or so of the blaze in forensic detail. Considering we all know how it ended – spoiler: the cathedral didn’t fall into the Seine – it’s a seriously impressive feat.
The fire’s cause is kept vague. It’s yet to be established IRL, though Annaud hedges his bets by showing us both a workman’s rogue ciggie and an electrical short. But when the flames start to consume the upper reaches of the cathedral, melting scaffolding and pouring molten lead through the mouths of its gargoyles and on the city below, the 2,200 degree blaze takes an almost demonic presence at the heart of the drama. It’s a formidable villain.
From there, Notre-Dame on Fire zeroes in on the often haphazard, but ultimately heroic response to the unfolding disaster. The Paris traffic, sluggish response times (early photos of the fire popping up on social media are initially dismissed as fakes), locked doors, and the struggle to get firefighting equipment up medieval spiral staircases all ramp up the tension.
Annaud smartly keeps things lean with a cast of characters – weary firefighters, panicky church wardens, emotionally stricken priests, even Emmanuel Macron himself, well-meaning but getting in the way – that’s unencumbered by distracting back stories. The Parisian public, captured via smartly used archival news footage, provide a vivid backdrop. There are some nice details in the firefighting methods themselves, including a bloke literally sketching the fire to help figure out how to extinguish it.
Notre-Dame on Fire is really good at conveying an iconic building’s place in a nation’s soul
And it’s surprisingly funny, too. ‘The church is 800 years old,’ notes one worried bystander. ‘We should call your mother,’ replies his wife. One old lady keeps interrupting the rescue effort to report a cat stuck on her roof.
There are duff notes, like the young girl whose death-wish determination to light a candle in the burning church spawns both some very heavy-handed religious symbolism. The regular use of split-screen is an inelegant, but effective tool for a story with so many parts to keep moving.
But Notre-Dame on Fire is really good at conveying an iconic building’s place in a nation’s soul, and the grief that its potential loss can provoke. Most of its symbolism is well-earned and resonant.
In UK cinemas now.