It was a shock to many when the iconic cathedral Notre-Dame de Paris burned down on 15 April 2019, because as one of the characters says: “Notre-Dame cannot burn”.
These impressions are clearly conveyed in an effective thriller, in which director Jean-Jacques Annaud (“The Name of the Rose”, “The Bear”, “Seven Years in Tibet”, “Enemy at the Gate”) creates great tension and drama, despite the fact that both outcomes are well known.
Visually, it has the flaming effects that the “fire movie genre” requires, in addition to many clips of real footage, made by drones, TV photographers, and ordinary people.
At the same time, the film follows a bunch of the people who were directly involved, especially the fire constables and the church staff who fought under dangerous circumstances to save the cathedral and its precious art and relics.
“Notre-Dame on Fire” has become a good film that portrays the seriousness of the moment with great conviction.
An Alarm of Confusion
The introduction shows how the fateful Monday started completely normally in and around Notre-Dame, with tourists on a tour and church workers in their normal ranks, the day after Palm Sunday.
It also shows small, clever, and disturbing hints about how questionable safety procedures during the ongoing renovation of the church roof represent a certain fire hazard.
We see, among other things, sparks from a building lift, red-hot waste from metal sawing, and a glowing cigarette butt blowing into the church. We also see a pigeon pecking at old wires inside the ceiling, but the film does not conclude how the fire started.
When it is a fact, the film shows well how the discontinued alarm system initially creates confusion, why it takes a long time before the fire brigade is notified, and how the mobilization of the forces takes even longer, among other things due to traffic jams in Paris.
Realistic And Terrifying Effects
The fire marshals are portrayed as heroes in this film, because even though large parts of Notre-Dame actually burned down, Annaud is keen to show the heroism they displayed in their persistent efforts to put out the flames and save the iconic bell towers.
The film clearly shows their impossible working conditions, sometimes with downright absurd and comic descriptions of situations, such as closed doors, leaking water pipes, and fire hoses punctured by liquid lead cascading down from above.
Jean-Jacques Annaud occasionally succumbs to the temptation to use somewhat pompous visual means that put Notre-Dame in an almost devotional and divine light. This is perhaps something one simply has to accept, seen in the light of the building’s position within Catholicism.
Shock, Disbelief, and Grief
From the rich gallery of characters, there is reason to single out the fire chiefs Gontier (Samuel Labarthe) and Gallet (Jean-Paul Bordes), who have to put out fires against both the media and authorities at the same time as they have to lead the extinguishing of the actual fire.
It is also exciting to follow Laurent Prades (Mickaël Chirinian), the curator at Notre-Dame. His struggle to get from Versailles to the cathedral as quickly as possible becomes a kind of movie-within-a-movie because he is the only one with the key to the safe that contains the most precious relic Christ’s crown of thorns.
Jean-Jacques Annaud alternates well between all his plots, while at the same time conveying the shock, disbelief, and sorrow that spreads among the townspeople who watch the fire from the quarters around Notre-Dame.
There will also be a mini-series on Netflix based on the same event, simply called “Notre-Dame” (October 19), while “Notre-Dame on Fire” is definitely a fiery drama for the big screen.