CRITICISM / FILM OPINION – Three years after the facts, Jean-Jacques Annaud returns to the fire of an emblematic monument with “Notre-Dame burns”. An unequal feature film, oscillating between the ridiculous and the great spectacle.
Notre Dame is burning: a symbol ravaged by flames
On April 15, 2019, a fire broke out in the framework of Notre-Dame de Paris. In the streets of the capital, hundreds of onlookers helplessly watch the flames devour the cathedral, witnessing, in particular, the fall of the spire. Until the next day, firefighters battle the flames, fearing that the structure could collapse at any moment. An event that Jean-Jacques Annaud transcribed hour by hour in Notre Dame is burning.
The opening of the feature film immediately points to its potential, as well as its flaws. The symbolic place and the sad combination of circumstances allow the filmmaker to try his hand at disaster film, a genre that is particularly rare in France. And the director immediately makes it clear that the visual possibilities interest him more than the rest.
Rhythm but no characters
Notre Dame is burning quickly presents the different protagonists who will play a more or less important role in this fight against fire. Despite the presence of Thomas Bidegain (A prophet, of rust and bone) in the screenplay, the feature film struggling to give consistency to his characters.
Many of them are incidental and serve only to cling to a point of view to move forward in the day. The sometimes risky interpretation and their purely anecdotal presence weigh down the emotional springs that Jean-Jacques Annaud wants to create. This is for example the case of a mother and her daughter who visit the cathedral when the fire starts or the caretaker who sounds the alarm.
By emphasizing rhythm and the stunning aspect of the images, the filmmaker often forgets the actors in this story. He nevertheless tries to develop sub-plots. Some of them become unintentionally laughable despite the touches of humor, like the frantic race of the cathedral manager Laurent Prades (Mickaël Chirinian), who tries desperately to get there despite the bad luck that slows him down. Other courses work, such as that of Captain Francis (Dimitri Storage), a firefighter who shows exceptional coolness and who finds himself with the responsibility of having to recover the Holy Crown.
An ode to the courage of firefighters
Not everything rings true in the film, but the viewer is constantly tossed between awkward sequences (the appearance of Anne Hidalgo, to name just one), and other impressive. This imbalance is also felt through the alternation between archive images of mediocre quality and stunning shots.
The result is a clumsy and uneven feature film. Jean-Jacques Annaud, however, seems more comfortable when fully dedicated to firefighting in action, at the heart of the furnace. His desire to highlight their collective strength, their mutual respect, and their sense of sacrifice take over in a more measured and less Guignolesque final act.
Somewhere between the ridiculous and the great spectacle, between Her Majesty Minor and Stalingradthe film, will probably not be a landmark in the career of its director, but testifies in any case to his desire to pay tribute to the courage of the rescuers mobilized during a significant event.
Notre Dame is burning by Jean-Jacques Annaud, in theaters on March 16, 2022. Above the trailer. Find all our trailers here.