Archive footage and dramatic reconstructions
A stunning film, directed by internationally acclaimed French director Jean-Jacques Annaud is amazing audiences around the world in its powerful depiction of the Notre Dame fire in April 2019.
Notre Dame on Fire (12A) uses archive footage from fateful night interspliced with dramatic reconstructions of the firefighters as they battled against the flames inside the building which is more than 750 years old.
The events sent seismic shockwaves through France as the country sees Notre Dame as its spiritual heart of the country. It was, after-all, where Napoleon famously crowned himself as The Emperor. Filmmakers used giant sets to replicate the insides of the famous building.
‘I was out in Vendée for a few days, in a house where the TV wasn’t working,’ says film director Jean-Jacques Annaud.
‘When I turned on the radio to listen to the address President Macron was about to give, I found out about the tragedy unfolding at Notre-Dame.’
‘I didn’t see it that evening: I imagined it. I know the cathedral well. As a child, I broke in my first camera, a Kodak Brownie, by photographing the pensive demon along the Chimera Gallery.’
Origins of the film: Notre Dame on Fire
Jean-Jacques recalls a subsequent meeting with Jérôme Seydoux, CEO of Pathé, who approached him in the latter part of December 2019.
‘Our relationship goes way back,’ he recalls. ‘He put an offer on the table that surprised me. He had in mind a spectacular archive montage film for wide screens and immersive sound on the Notre-Dame fire.’
‘At first, I feared there wasn’t enough diverse footage to put together a 90-minute film, but I listened. I left with an envelope full of documentation, including articles in French and English.’
‘Before going to bed, I took a look at it. I pored over everything until the wee hours. It was too late or too early to call, but I’d made my decision.’
‘What I discovered in them was unimaginable. A fascinating cascade of setbacks, obstacles, failures. Totally implausible, yet true. All the components of a fiction script were there.’
‘In the title role: an international star, Notre-Dame de Paris. Her opponent: a formidable and charismatic demon, fire. Between the two, ordinary young people prepared to give their lives to save stones.’
For Jean-Jacques it was a ‘silver-screen action’ which any scriptwriter might dream of as it contained all of the elements which would ensure the true story made a power film.
‘I knew from the start that I would have to collect information, testimonies and possible hypotheses from those who lived through these mind-blowing hours.’
The director put together a chronological timetable of events to ensure he could correctly tell the story – from when the first flames appeared through to how the fire fighters operated within the cathedral itself.
A sequence of events
The filmmakers show how a relentless sequence of dramatic events became set in motion which culminated in a delay to raising the alarm.
‘It was the first day of work at Notre-Dame for the new fire safety guard in charge of monitoring a fire alarm control panel where alarms go off if a fire is detected.’
‘He had never visited the cathedral and was unfamiliar with the technical terminology of Gothic architecture.’
‘When the alarm went off and an indecipherable code was displayed, he called his boss. The person in charge was not reachable and didn’t return the call until 15 minutes later.’
‘The guard in charge of verifying that a fire has indeed broken out understood through the crackling of his walkie-talkie that he was to check the sacristy attic, whereas the fire had broken out in the attic of the nave.’
‘That was just the beginning of a staggering string of mishaps.’
An immersive narrative at the heart of the action
The film focuses on the 24 hours ending at sunrise on April 16. It retraces the challenge emergency services faced due to a delay in sounding the alert, as well as the struggle to get personnel and equipment through Paris rush-hour traffic.
It continues with the firefighters’ perilous combat against a monster fire, over which, by the end of the night, expertise and bravery won out.
Filmmakers say that the events of 16 April 2019 shook the world but also allowed France to gain a sense of national pride in the skill, cool-headedness and devotion of those who took part in rescuing the cathedral.
Notre Dame on Fire (12A) is on general release in the UK. Trailer / stills supplied courtesy of Pathe Productions.