AFFFF: Notre-Dame on Fire (2022)

The devastating fire that struck Paris’ Notre-Dame cathedral in 1999 was always going to lend itself to a film adaptation. While it is surprising to see it be made quite so soon, it is even more surprising to discover what a powerful, slick and effective film it is. It is directed by noted filmmaker Jean-Jacques Annaud, who previous works include The Name of the Rose, The Lover, and Enemy at the Gates. For a man who has spent so much of his career documenting the past, it is an aggressively contemporary and energetic film. Anyone with a taste for high quality commercial cinema should absolutely check it out.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is just how close it came to the entire cathedral burning to the ground. Much of the roof’s structure was constructed from what is now eight-hundred year-old wood. The roofing was made of lead, which in the immense head of the fire melted so much that it was literally pouring out of the gargoyles and onto the street. To make matters worse, the stone used to construct the bulk of the building was particularly porous: fine if it gets rained out, but potentially catastrophic if doused in several million litres of water from fire engines.

The challenges go on. The cathedral is packed with literally priceless Catholic artefacts. The fire is on the roof, which is higher than any fire-fighting crane in the city. The stairwells were built for short people in the Middle Ages, and not 21st century fire fighters carrying heavy equipment. Keys to critically important locked doors and safes are in the possession of a handful of people – and one of them is at a function in Versailles. Grid-locked traffic hampers the attempts to reach the building. Worst of all no one even notices the building is on fire until it has been well-established, eating the structure from within.

As people often claim with disasters like this, you simply could not make it up. Annaud, working with co-writer Thomas Bidegain (A Prophet, The Dancer), does not need to contrive any made-up Hollywood elements because the historical facts provide all of the tension, tragedy, and thrills that an action-thriller needs. Annaud smartly keep the film working as a procedural. There is no need for heightened action or hyperbole. Contemporary news footage and amateur recordings are incorporated into the production shoot. When the film displays Notre-Dame spectacularly on fire, the viewer is showing genuine footage. When President Emmanuel Macron attends the scene, there is no attempt made to cast an actor in the role: it is the real-life President from the actual event.

A very talented cast portrays the broad variety of fire-fighters and cathedral employees who fought to extinguish the blaze. Their dedication and heroism feels authentic and measured. Despite the audience knowing how the story ends, the person-by-person detail and focus makes it a hugely powerful experience. Whether you are Catholic or not, a desperate mission to enter the blaze and rescue the holiest of relics is edge-of-your-seat stuff. You cannot help but feel for cathedral manager Laurent Prades (Mikaël Chirinian), who starts the film at a party in Versailles and has to somehow make his way to Notre-Dame past missed trains, stand-still traffic, and police cordons.

It is true that there are a few deeply sentimental moments, but importantly the film earns them. It is enormously effective and respectful. It is historical tragedy and nail-biting cinema blended together. It is one of the best films that Annaud has ever directed.

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