Jean-Jacques Annaud’s desire for great popular cinema comes up against a poverty of writing which fails to really dramatize the fire of 2019.
When Notre-Dame de Paris burned down on April 15, 2019, some saw it as more than a fire: a fact of civilisation. If the cathedral burned down, they say to themselves, something was definitely wrong in our beautiful country, threatened by the flames of decadence and saved by an elite of warriors of light. In short, it is still and always a question of projecting a vision of the world onto an event, which always says more about those who talk about it than about the state of the fire alarm of the jewels of the Center des Monuments Nationaux (the 5 February 2019, ten people died in a fire started by an unbalanced woman in the 16th arrondissement, which made the editorialists talk less). Notre Dame is burning seeks to make this event a fact of cinema, by transforming it into a spiritual combat (saving a sacred place) and civilizational (saving a French place which calls for the universal). This is not a critical exaggeration on our part, it is indeed what the film says and shows – which we will certainly not reproach for wanting to transform a dramatic event into a great popular film, let us be clear. But basically, that it all really happened that way doesn’t matter: it’s first about making a successful fiction film. And on that side, it’s not really successful.
Exciting and tense when Jean-Jacques Annaud follows the firefighters as close as possible to the fire, clearly showing the fear, the pain, the heat, and the difficulty of progressing in the face of the blaze, Notre Dame is burning unscrew completely on the writing side. Despite the presence of a confirmed scriptwriter (Thomas Bidegain, author at his best ofa prophet Where The Cowboys) to the script, nothing seems believable. The security guard who holds the phone a meter from his ear when his wife yells at him for staying late at work, the Christlike apparition of a chaplain saving the hosts from the flames (and blessing a young firefighter North African origin amazed by the courage of the padre), Trump (played by a look-alike filmed from behind) tweeting from the White House, Anne Hidalgo (in her own role and her own office) seeing the flames from her window, the running gag of the old lady calling the fire brigade to save her little cat stuck on a roof while the switchboard explodes… All this evokes (bad) comics, a cinema of frozen boxes, cut-out, isolated and often absurd vignettes. In a few words: flashes of technical bravery drowned in a true story scattered, fragmented, with both burlesque and bondieusard accents.
The script nevertheless serves on a set of seeds of heroes (the security guard who performs his first day during the fire, young firefighters during their -literal-baptism of fire) with great cinematographic potential, but which we will ignore very quickly. Stalingrad, one of the best Annauds, absolutely distorted historical reality, and it was necessary since it was done for the benefit of fiction and action. Perhaps due to the proximity of the event, Notre Dame is burning does not want to distort anything (the film is stuffed with real images shot by the spectators of the event, contributing to the fragmentation of the story and its lack of guiding force). And therefore, not that of fiction: the film seriously contextualizes the event, recalling that Emmanuel Macron was to give a speech that evening on the Yellow Vests (an extract from a news report recalls that “the quinquennium is played tonight”), and the cathedral fire changed everything. But there too it is a blind spot in the film, remaining on the inconsistency of the president put aside in the decision-making chain, thanks to the firefighters who set up a fake command post for him so that he leaves the peace to the firefighters – and it’s one of the best scenes in the movie. Perhaps, basically, the film is also much too short to be able to evoke everything it wants – the France of the Yellow Vests, the fight of the firefighters, the interconnected world where the slightest drama is scattered and dislocated in the chaos of the networks… Or perhaps, really, the tragedy of Notre-Dame was not as dramatic or interesting as we are led to believe.