On the south-west corner of the facade of Notre-Dame Cathedral, a horned chimera gazes out in wonder at the left bank of Paris. Director Jean-Jacques Annaud, 78, was a boy when he chose the beast for his second photograph; he took it with a camera given to him by his mother (the subject of his first photograph). They lived at the gates of Paris and she took him to the cathedral every Thursday. “She used to go there to light a candle for a friend who was sick,” he explains. “My parents weren’t religious, but she had this Christian tradition of doing this stuff.”
It is therefore understandably appalling for Annaud when, decades later, on the evening of April 15, 2019, the place that lit his director’s eye turned into a Dantesque hell. He was in a family home on the west coast of France when news of the fire broke; without access to television, he listened to the radio as his spire crumbled and flames licked the towers. His main residence was only a few hundred meters away, near the Pont Neuf.
The cathedral was not the only concern of the firefighters. “There were strong swirling winds that day,” he says, “and the building was a huge brazier, a giant barbecue grill. They thought he was going to collapse. If it fell on the Rue du Cloître side, the whole neighborhood would be dead.
Three years later, we emerge from the rue du Cloître, quite intact, on the forecourt of Notre Dame. The cathedral’s facade looks jagged, but the building is cordoned off and sheathed on its sides by gassed scaffolding that makes it look like a medieval Center Pompidou. Annaud enthusiastically points out the places where he was able to shoot scenes for Notre Dame on fire, his scrupulously dramatized new account of the disaster. Right over there, one of the traffic jams that delayed the fire department. Here, in front of the Hôtel-Dieu Hospital, the emergency response tents. A few meters away, the truck where the politicians composed themselves for the media: “The truck of lies, I call it!”
It was also at Notre Dame that a producer confirmed funding for his 1986 medieval crime film, The Name of the Rose, starring Sean Connery. But dwelling on the possible destruction of the building makes him realize its larger meaning, something “premonitory” that goes beyond his religious associations: “A lot of people told me that it was the symbol of the West. That the idea that the cathedral could collapse represented the risk of the west collapsing.
His film teases us with the possibility of the building’s destruction: as Paris firefighters rush to save it, it employs push-button thriller dynamics in a kind of ecclesiastical version of The Towering Inferno. When Jérôme Seydoux, the president of Pathé, came to him at the end of 2019 with the idea of making a documentary on the fire, Annaud quickly had a more pompous pitch in mind: “I said to myself: great, we have a star international, very beautiful and very famous. And an exceptional villain: fire. We love fire because it warms us and enlightens us, but it can also destroy us. He’s the perfect charismatic villain.
When it came to stringing together the dramatic structure of the knuckle-whitener he had in mind, Annaud had practically nothing to invent. The film is based on extensive research that included 162 interviews with firefighters, clergy, medical workers, journalists, police officers and local residents (many of whom appear in the film played by actors). Everything he learned surprised him, he says; there were implausible character setups, ridiculous twists and OTT set-pieces everywhere he looked.
Most credibility attacks are the running gag about Laurent Prades, the custodian of the cathedral’s artifacts, who – in thriller parlance – picked the wrong day to attend a gala reception at Versailles. Not only does he suffer a frantic race through Paris, but in his panic, he fails to remember the code of the safe containing the Crown of thorns. Everything is 100% true, Annaud swears, like the rest of the film. “I had nothing to add. Because what happened was so amazing, so surprising and with inherently dramatic qualities. He switches to English: “I had a bag of gold nuggets.”
While the film pulls those narrative strings, it also feels grounded in the details of spatial precision, material properties, and firefighting strategies (and is intercut with actual footage shot by bystanders). As we walk around the cordon on this June morning, Annaud throws up the facts with as much pleasure as the tour guides around us, still active despite the site being closed until 2024. The difference between a chimera and a gargoyle? Gargoyles also serve as drains. The melting point of lead, used to line the roof and which the film shows raining down on Parisians like satanic magma? “340°C.” (It’s actually 327.5°C, but we’ll give it a pass.)
Just before our walk, we sit down to chat on a sunny terrace of the neighboring Café du Pont. Opposite is the place, as Notre-Dame en feu shows us, where the first fire engine was stopped by a too narrow breach in the work palisades. The film also serves as an exasperated tribute to some of the frustrations of Parisian life: the endless traffic jams and the works. Annaud raised the subject with the mayor of the city, Anne Hidalgo, the only figure to play in the film. “The town hall recognizes that it has made mistakes”, he says, sipping a coffee cream. “But the Parisians are angry. There is a level of tension here that wears you down.
He’s an expansive tour guide, wearing natty isometric suspenders over a white shirt and white Stan Smiths and with a mop of curly hair the same color. Our Lady on Fire is the latest entry in a fearless filmography often featuring the high-tapestry story (fire quest; The Name of the Rose; Enemy at the Gates) and for which, in order to continue creating his favorite romantic panoramas, he recently spoke with controversial payers: the Qatari government for Black Gold in 2011 and the Chinese government for Wolf Totem in 2015. a budget of just over 30m euros (£25.4m), his new film is a bit pricey for a European production, but he says he was not commissioned by the government to help raise funds for reconstruction. Brigitte Macron has seen it and “loves it”, but he does not know if the president has had time to watch it yet.
The money is certainly apparent on screen, though. Annaud mainly shot at Meaning, cathedrals of Amiens and Bourges, because of their similarities with Notre-Dame; the first was the first Gothic cathedral in Europe, which Paris soon after surpassed. Then, for all the fire scenes, his team reconstructed to the nearest millimeter different parts of the workshop, including the lower facade up to the towers, the eastern part of the north transept, where the first wave of firefighters beaten to access the eaves, and an eight-column section of the nave.
A waitress walks by holding two pints topped with flaming candles. Green screen and fake CGI flames were out of the question for Annaud. “You believe what you see, because my young actors were really scared. They were really hot, so they gave the necessary reaction. With green screen, they spend their time imagining instead of acting. But when I put them in front of jets of flame at 800°C, and they have to put on their helmets, you really get something else.
Annaud had real firefighters to watch his fire. While researching the film, he was extremely impressed with the collective spirit, bravery and humility he constantly encountered. She stood out for him in relation to the individualistic milieu of the cinema. “We are chasing glory, success and fame. Most people in Los Angeles are depressed because they know they’re making terrible movies. They make a lot of money doing something they don’t respect. Psychologically, it is an abomination.
He managed to avoid these kinds of soul-destroying compromises in his career, in part because he kept the final cut of his films – a rarity now. Seemingly still full of beans as he nears 80, he is aware that cinema is entering a different era. The pandemic has decimated movie theater audiences, throwing budgeting for new movies off balance, and it’s not entirely certain what’s next. In the meantime, Notre-Dame still stands as a constant on its horizon. He spots the silhouette of the gremlin in the southwest corner. “Now I have it at home,” he says, revealing that his life-size replica was his take-home souvenir from filming. A chimera in the living room: it’s one more than an Oscar.