On Easter Monday 2019, at 18:17hrs, a smoke alarm goes off in the small room occupied by a security guard working at Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris. He calls the relevant functionary, who zips up to the roof to see if anything up there is burning. Nothing. The system’s always doing this, the guard is told, playing up. It’s old, it needs replacing. With the alarm still squawking, the guard calls his superior. Turn off the alarm he’s instructed. He does what he’s told. It’s his first day in a new job.
So begins Notre Dame on Fire, Jean-Jacques Annaud’s film about the day when Paris’s 850-year-old cathedral caught fire and burned almost to the ground. It’s a marvel of dramatic reconstruction and repurposed smartphone footage which starts out in the realm of cool “here’s how it happened” and gradually yields to Hollywood impulses to turn the day into some version of a disaster movie. Dwayne Johnson or Will Smith, anybody?
Annaud begins with this guard, teasingly smoking a cigarette, before suggesting other possible causes for the fire – showing us workers up on the roof also smoking, next to No Smoking signs; pigeons pecking away at electrical wiring; ancient relays sparking away.
Downstairs, meanwhile, life goes on – crowds mill, tour guides with folded brollies lead their groups around the cathedral; a mass is begun, which never concludes.
How the fire gets going is never explained, but once it has taken hold, Annaud widens his focus. As the smoke billows and the flames begin to spike, the alarm is eventually sounded. The action moves from that lone security guard to other key workers in the building, up the hierarchical chain and across the city to the fire crews, and eventually to the President and the world’s media.
Firefighters are dispatched but can’t get through – the city is gridlocked. By the time they get there the better part of an hour has elapsed since the alarm first sounded and the roof is obviously ablaze. The race is now on to do what’s possible – save the cathedral’s artworks, try and stop the belltowers from collapsing – but a near annihilation of the building is inevitable.
Notre-Dame understandably not being available for location shooting – the vast job of restoration continues – Annaud shot in various other French cathedrals of a similar vintage, to capture the sense of how much timber is up in those roofs – elephantine beams of dry oak. Authenticity comes from the smartphone footage Annaud assembled after putting up a website and inviting people to send in what they had. There is a lot of it, and it’s carefully colour-graded to fit in with Annaud’s own footage and used to set the scene (traffic jams, crowds of onlookers) as well as provide establishing shots (the roof ablaze and eventually collapsing).
In style Annaud starts out in the same vein as United 93, a film in which mundane detail is transformed by the knowledge of what’s to come, but he eventually devolves into a kind of action/disaster movie, not too far from The Towering Inferno.
Some hokey Hollywood stuff gets past Annaud’s sense of good taste – the little girl charging back into the cathedral to light a candle after everyone has been evacuated; the young male and female firefighter sharing sticks of chewing gum, the prelude to romance, maybe?
These episodes could be lost and the film would be no less impressive. That shot of a gargoyle carved into an oak beam lit up like a devil in hell. The lead from the roof melting and running in torrents into gutters and down to ground level. The ancient standpipes springing leaks as they’re called on to deliver water on a scale never countenanced.
What stands out, beyond the way Annaud suggests the reach and ferocity of the blaze, is the professionalism and bravery of the firefighters, who use cool logic and an increasingly systematised method to gradually bring the blaze under control. There is still room for heroics, though. Real heroics, like the “suicide” team assembled to embark on a “so crazy it might just work” mission.
Annaud also wants to say something about faith – the crowds outside singing hymns as the old cathedral burns – and about an inclusive French identity borne out of shared values rather than a similar skin colour.
All this, too, takes a back seat to the main event. Notre Dame on fire. It is quite a thing.
Notre Dame on Fire – Watch it/buy it at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2022