France: “Notre-Dame Is Burning”

April 28, 2022

On March 16, 2022, the film “Notre-Dame Is Burning,” by Jean-Jacques Annaud, was released, three years after the fire at Notre-Dame de Paris. It reproduces hour by hour the course of the tragic fire which almost destroyed the building on April 15, 2019.

From the first alert, given by the recently hired security guard during the 6 p.m. Mass until the complete extinction of the fire on the morning of April 16. The film depicts the perilous fight by those who were confronted with a monstrous fire, and whose skill and courage triumphed, by the end of the night, ad majorem gloriam Dei.

Today, the 850-year-old cathedral still stands, the 1,300 sacred objects of the treasury have all been saved, no lives were lost. Our Lady of the Pillar, the statue of the Virgin who personifies the building was found intact in the middle of the rubble. When the first rays of dawn touched her face and that of her spared Child, we saw her smile, writes the director.

The film pays tribute to the work of the firefighters who fought for fifteen hours against the flames. “Among what we still hold sacred,” declares Jean-Jacques Annaud, “we find firefighters.” Because no one could imagine a fire in Notre-Dame de Paris. However, “everything is true without anything seeming probable.” This quote from Antoine de Rivarol (1753-1801), which opens the film, shows how reality has surpassed fiction.

At the height of the fire, we see Laurent Prade, the manager in charge of the inventory of works of art in the cathedral, unable to remember the access code to the chest containing the Crown of Thorns, the jewel of the Notre Dame Treasury: “The reality is often implausible, underlines the filmmaker, but this story is nevertheless taken from the interviews I had with Laurent Prade and from his own story which he wrote and which I scrupulously followed.”

Using “more than 10,000 pages of documents,” it is the documentary and chronological reconstruction of the fire. “I do not take sides,” explains Jean-Jacques Annaud, “I simply tell what I know and what happened.” And, “to share the emotion, I put my actors at 1m50 from 850 degree lights!” he adds.

With a faulty alarm system and firefighters stuck in Parisian traffic who were slow to arrive on site, all the dramatic energy was in place: “Notre-Dame, an international star... a demon, the fire... and rescuers prevented from bringing help, like in a bad dream,” continues the filmmaker.

The director of “The Name of the Rose” (1986) and “Seven Years in Tibet” (1997) had to carry out meticulous reconstruction work for the impressive life-size sets. He visited around thirty Gothic cathedrals in France to reproduce these sets in the studio.

At the cathedral of Sens, which has the same outside paving as the Parisian building, the high angle shots were shot and at that of Bourges, the low angle shots. “I could only do this work in France,” he specifies, “because there are about thirty truly Gothic places which used almost the same stone.”

Answering questions from the Swiss agency, Jean-Jacques Annaud confides that “Notre-Dame de Paris is the first building that made me love Gothic architecture. On Thursdays, my mom took me to Paris… and the usual circuit was to go to Notre-Dame.”

In Le Point of March 5, 2022, he adds: “With my pocket money, I subscribed to Mickey's newspaper but also to the Zodiaque magazine created by the Pierre-qui-Vire monks who produced monographs on the Romanesque churches.… I was an enthusiast and later a student. I had chosen to study the history of the art of the Middle Ages alongside my cinema studies. I spent my teenage years photographing cathedrals, churches, and chapels.”

“I love places of worship,” continues the 78-year-old filmmaker. “My parents were atheists, as I am myself, but they were very respectful, very tolerant. To tell you, I am touched by and I love the faith of others. I respect the moments of prayer and I am always moved when I enter a temple, of whatever religion it may be. Because these are important places in lives.”

And he added: “nothing pleased me better than a stay, before “The Name of the Rose,” with the Benedictine monks of the Abbey of Praglia (Italy), where they were restoring old books.... Peace, the sense of group unity… speaking only when necessary… there is something deep and very beautiful that touches me enormously.”