Director: Jean-Jacques Annaud
Cast: Samuel Labarthe, Jean-Paul Bordes, Mikael Chirinian, Jérémie Laheurte, Chloé Jouannet, Pierre Lottin
Runtime: 1 hr 50 mins
Rating: PG13 (Brief Coarse Language)
Released By: Shaw Organisation
Opening Day: 8 December 2022
Synopsis: NOTRE-DAME ON FIRE offers a blow-by-blow recreation of the gripping events that took place on April 15, 2019, when the cathedral suffered the biggest blaze in its history. The film retraces how heroic men and women put their lives on the line to accomplish an awe-inspiring rescue.
From a site of worship to a tourist hotspot, the Notre Dame cathedral in France is well- regarded as a valuable destination in anyone’s itinerary when visiting the city of Paris. With its French Gothic architecture and strategic position on the Seine, the religious monument has inspired books, music and paintings, amongst artists and worshippers alike.
Ever since its construction was completed in 1345, the cathedral has been seen in many ways, but nothing prepared one for what happened on the evening of 15 April 2019. When the world saw the great cathedral emitting plumes of smoke and then erupting in flames, the first reaction was: Is this real?
The fiery disaster was witnessed by the world and was eventually put out the next morning, but not before it took out the roof and spire of the cathedral. Thankfully, most of the main building remained intact, and many of the precious artefacts within the church archives were saved.
Though it only happened three years ago, seeing it unfold through Jean-Jacques Annaud’s film made the event feel vividly real once again - and the effect is surprisingly tense. While the cause of the fire was never isolated, the director focuses instead on different arcs of the people reacting to the fire, from ordinary citizens to church personnel and firefighters alike. One of the biggest criticisms the authorities faced was the seemingly inadequate effort they mustered to save the international icon. This film shows us why.
The delivery here is incredibly intimate, with the film handing us from person to person in a daisy chain as the unfortunate series of events unfolded. From misread alarms to the complications of navigating its narrow structures, one begins to better understand that no one in particular should be blamed - and Annaud’s crafting here is as gently sympathetic as it gets. He distributes these small incidents of delay and challenges throughout the film, putting us in the front seat of the tragedy to see the domino effect, and puts into visuals what even the best press release couldn’t explain.
Most impressive is how he managed to reconstruct the event, physically guiding us through the wooden eaves, narrow stairwells, and stoic gargoyles before revisiting how they - the very things that make Notre Dame beautiful - are also what led to the difficult rescue. From archaic door systems that trapped firefighters to the 460 tonnes of lead tiles that poured through the statues’ mouths, the villain here is really the building itself, accounting for why it took over 12 hours to put out the fire.
Thankfully this isn’t just a purely technical affair. Even in the short spurts of visitation from the many characters, we get a sense of their personality and relationship, often dished out in typical Parisian manner - a mix of dark humour and disdain. While some of the moments are a bit of a caricature, the majority of the figures add splendidly to the storyline and make for good viewing.
Mixed with actual footage from archives and witnesses alike, the film abandons traditional framing and styles for a menagerie of presentations, which is surprisingly engaging. Even with their wildly different resolutions, it adds a multi-perspective feel to the unfolding, letting the audience choose from their preferred vantage.
Most importantly, the film highlights how much was saved as opposed to how much was destroyed - largely because of the actions of firefighters who saved the belfry where the heavy bells could have caused more utter collapse of the building and facade. This, the film did brilliantly.
Today the cathedral still stands closed as workers repair the damage. While the re-opening date for the site is still uncertain, Notre Dame on Fire helps to fill a gap in revisiting this monument, albeit in a heartbreaking but beautifully heroic way at the same time.
(A surprisingly engaging dramatisation that works, even when it splits its time between a wide ensemble. Riveting and a fitting tribute to the firefighters who saved the day)
Review by Morgan Awyong