DIRECTOR: Jean-Jacques Annaud

CAST: Élodie Navarre, Chloé Jouannet, Jesuthasan Antonythasan, Kevin Garnichat, Samuel Labarthe, Jeremie Laheurte, Maximilien Seweryn, Daniel Horn, Vassili Schneider, Sebastien Lalanne, Ava Baya, Jules Sadoughi, Tony Le Bacq, Jean-Paul Bordes, Nathan Gruffy, Loic Djani, Pierre Lottin, Reshny N’Kouka, Billel Sakhri

RUNNING TIME: 110 mins

CERTIFICATE: 12A

BASICALLY…: In April 2019, the famed Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral catches on fire…

NOW FOR THE REVIEW…

The world watched in horror on April 15th 2019, when the iconic Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral – arguably one of, if not the most famous of its kind in the world – was partially destroyed in a devastating fire. Like most national tragedies, though, it is also natural (if somewhat cynical) to imagine what the inevitable movie about this event is going to look like, but in this case there’s only one real way to truly do “justice” (said with trepidation) to the Notre-Dame fire on the big screen, and that’s to go full Towering Inferno with it.

Lo and behold, Notre-Dame on Fire does indeed lean heavily into the traditional disaster movie genre, but director Jean-Jacques Annaud (a prolific French director best known for films such as Seven Years in Tibet, Enemy at the Gates and The Name of the Rose) isn’t so tasteless to bring out his inner Roland Emmerich to depict something that’s still so fresh in many people’s memories. Instead, his approach is more The Towering Inferno by way of a Paul Greengrass docu-drama which, similar to Ron Howard’s Thirteen Lives, focuses entirely on the event in question with traditional narrative components like character and plotting all but wiped clean off the board. The result is an effective cinematic experiment that is thrilling at its best, and unbelievably corny in its weakest moments – in other words, a prototypical disaster movie.

The film dramatizes the events of that fateful day, beginning with scenes of the Notre-Dame cathedral being swamped by tourists (it is, after all, one of the biggest such destinations in the French capital), and some of the on-site workers arriving for their first day on the job. Eventually, though, things get heated – all too literally – when a fire breaks out in one of the cathedral’s attics (multiple possibilities as to the cause, from dropped cigarette butts to electrical faults, are alluded to but never confirmed as the sole culprit), and once the building is evacuated it’s a non-stop race against time for the multiple firefighters called to the scene, as well as some of the building’s officials who happen to be away for the day but possess the keys to saving the cathedral’s many irreplaceable Holy relics, including the Crown of Thorns. Spliced in with the dramatized scenes are shots of real footage showing the actual Notre-Dame on fire, as well as authentic B-roll video of street-level events from the police barricades to the crowds gathering nearby to witness the carnage, to even the visit of French President Emmanuel Macron to the site to survey the damage and what can be done to put out the fire safely.

It’s no surprise to learn that Annaud originally intended his film to be a documentary, given how straightforward and all-encompassing the movie feels (not to mention all that real footage used in the film). However, it does just about work as a dramatic narrative, because the filmmaker uses as many conventions as he can for not just the disaster movie genre, but also hints of action, melodrama, and even random moments of somewhat misplaced comedy – it shows Donald Trump tweeting about the fire, and a couple of times, even in the middle of an intense sequence, the movie will for no reason cut to a woman calling the fire department to help save a small cat that’s stuck on a roof – to make the viewing experience as entertaining as possible for the audience. For the most part, it is gripping to watch, especially in scenes where Annaud employs guerrilla-style camerawork to capture some of the events happening around the fire, as well as the tense claustrophobia within tight spaces that some of these firefighters have to climb through in order to save this centuries-old building. The editing also moves things along at a fiery pace (no pun intended), which helps make things consistently engaging, even when it’s just focusing on miniscule things like city traffic getting in the way of fire engines, or hire bikes that keep going wrong; whichever way possible, the filmmaker still manages to hold your attention.

While it’s true that characterisation is a significant afterthought throughout (to a point where some characters that are established early on, like a new security guard being shown the ropes on his first day, just disappear completely from the movie, only to return for the final few moments), it’s just not the kind of movie that relies on character arcs to get by. The focus is purely on the situation, with barely a moment to get to know the people helping putting out this great big fire, because there’s just no time for any of that. Although, having said that, the movie does take a few moments out to get ridiculously, hilariously cheesy, from extended shots of a single tear crawling down the face of a Virgin Mary statue, or a priest calmly walking through the burning building with his cherished “body of Christ” wafers, or a minor sub-plot of a little girl running back into the building (after the evacuation order has been given) to light a symbolic candle, which leads to the corniest final shot of a movie you’ve perhaps seen all year. A few ropey effects, including a distractingly CGI zoom through the Notre-Dame attic (because, well, it’s not like they could shoot it in the real thing), do briefly take you out of the movie as well, though in a way they – as do the moments of severe cheesiness – add to the B-movie disaster charm that Annaud is clearly aiming for here. However, because the movie is also desperately trying to be a docu-drama with its naturalist performances and use of actual footage of the fire, it does feel as though the movie is sometimes at war with itself about the best possible way to depict this devastating event.

Whether you’re gripped by the intense and borderline post-apocalyptic peril (I haven’t even mentioned the river’s worth of molten lead that’s just spewing out of a gargoyle’s mouth), or laughing along at the overly sentimental corniness which would make even Roland Emmerich wet himself, Notre-Dame on Fire is a reasonably entertaining sit that ultimately does, in its own way, pay tribute to the brave souls who risked everything to save a national and worldwide monument. Is it silly? Often, yes. But it’s the kind of silly that you just expect/want out of disaster movies in general.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Notre-Dame on Fire is an entertaining depiction of the 2019 blaze that engulfed the Parisian landmark, with filmmaker Jean-Jacques Annaud mixing intense docu-drama stylings that emphasise the gripping dangers of the fire, and traditional disaster movie conventions that also include some hilariously corny moments of over-sentimentality.

Notre-Dame on Fire is now showing in cinemas nationwide – click here to find a screening near you!

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