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Film review: Notre Dame on Fire

by
22 July 2022

The symbolic importance of the Notre-Dame fire is emphasised in the tense new film drama, says Stephen Brown

A still of the symbolic gargoyle in Notre Dame on Fire

A still of the symbolic gargoyle in Notre Dame on Fire

THE film Notre Dame On Fire (Cert. 12A) is a dramatised version of the evening of 15 April 2019 when Notre-Dame de Paris was ablaze. Jean-Jacques Annaud’s film plays like a version of The Towering Inferno (1974) with Samuel Labarthe in Steve McQueen’s fire chief role.

Sticking closely to the facts, this production also a heightened sense of the numinous. Not only does it recount the self-sacrificial heroics of the officers controlling the flames: there is a strong sacramental element. The building isn’t just a fine example of French Gothic: it’s a shrine to our Lady, standing as a beacon of faith over 850 years of human activity. Moreover, among its venerated relics are the Crown of Thorns (buying it put France in debt for 35 years), a vial of Christ’s blood, a crucifixion nail, and a piece of the cross. The race is on to save them, as well as people.

The chief, explaining the situation to the real-life President Macron, issues a caveat. I can ask my crew to save lives, he says, but not stones and relics if it puts them at risk. Despite his warnings, some fighters volunteer for this “suicide mission” to reach the seat of the fire, thus saving the cathedral’s bells, walls, and numerous treasures.

We already know many of the details, which were extensively reported. The director, therefore, has the task of drawing us into a meta-story about this cathedral’s emblematic significance. Its falling, he claims, would have constituted a sign that the West was going to collapse, too. Annaud certainly knows a thing or two about pumping up the volume.

This film, destined for IMAX-scale screens plus other cinemas, has what he calls the perfect villain in the fire itself: a near-demonic character, which is symbolised by recurrent shots of a horned gargoyle. Further tension is generated by nail-biting delays in the fire brigade’s arrival amid traffic jams; and then there’s the custodian of artefacts at a function in Versailles all day and seemingly with sole knowledge of the code for the safe containing the sacred treasures.

Notre-Dame itself was unavailable for shooting. Instead, the cathedrals of Sens, Bourges, and Amiens were pressed into service, assisted by true-to-scale studio sets and highly convincing CGI of a fire burning at more than 2000°F. We should also remember that Jean-Jacques Annaud has made some other films dealing with religious matters, including The Name of the Rose (1986). On that occasion, he managed to omit all of Umberto Eco’s philosophical musings in the original novel.

This time, there is a self-conscious effort to emphasise the Christian dimensions to events. Fact or fiction, Padre Boulanger tells Ibrahim, “I’ve rescued holy hosts, the Body of Christ.” The Muslim fireman is visibly moved as he subsequently is by the crowd below singing the Angelus and “Amazing Grace”. A little excessive, perhaps, but witnessing the levels of faith in Notre Dame On Fire vigorously contests secularist assumptions that Christianity is dead. The film suggests that the material and the spiritual are two sides of the same coin. You can’t save one without the other.

In cinemas.

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