Notre Dame on Fire
On 15th April 2019 the world looked on in shock and disbelief as images of Paris’s iconic Notre Dame cathedral, engulfed in flames, swept across our screens. As the fire raged on, there was a very real possibility that the over-850-year-old cathedral (and the priceless relics inside) would be lost forever. Jean-Jacques Annaud’s (who co-wrote the script with Thomas Bidegain), Notre Dame on Fire takes audiences into the heart of the drama as it chronicles the efforts of those involved in tackling the blaze. The impressive production values and incorporation of real footage add a sense of realism that gives the script a tangible sense of suspense and danger. However, its tonally inconsistent execution and self-righteous sanctimony undercut the heroism of the firefighters who risked their lives that day.
The first act of the film plays out like a whimsical family-film-meets-Final Destination. A joyous soundtrack forms the introduction to the monument as tours in various languages convey the majesty and historic importance of the landmark. Meanwhile, a smouldering cigarette in the rafters, faulty wiring in the belfry and conversations about the unreliable alarm system foreshadow the impending disaster in the same excited manner as the horror franchise highlighted its intricate death traps. This tonal mismatch is a recurring theme throughout the feature as it clumsily moves between suspenseful action, triumphant heroism and offbeat comedy (sometimes even in the same scenes). More perplexing is a subplot involving an elderly woman concerned about her escaped kitten. It doesn’t go anywhere; it’s just there.
Annaud’s film is at its strongest when it takes audiences inside the fire. The smoke-filled corridors reduce visibility as the structure begins to crumble. It’s a scenario where everything goes wrong, but, thanks to the excellent visuals, the palpable trepidation creates some effective dramatic stakes, even if they result in some groan-inducing lines of dialogue.
It’s in the ending that this film loses its mind. Spirituality is a recurring theme (it is about a cathedral, after all) that gives a strong sense of community, however, the filmmaker goes one step further by implying the miraculous victory over the fire and zero fatalities was the work of God and a little girl’s prayer. Lacking any subtlety, it’s as tasteless as a cheap greeting card and ultimately undermines the heroism of the people the script was supposed to celebrate.
Notre Dame on Fire is released in select cinemas on 22nd July 2022.
Watch the trailer for Notre Dame on Fire here: