Veteran French director Jean-Jacques Annaud serves up some high-octane film-making with this old-fashioned disaster movie, composed in a docu-realist style, about the catastrophic fire that engulfed Paris’s Notre Dame cathedral in 2019. With dramatic reconstructions, digital effects and the splicing in of amateur video, social media material and genuine news footage – President Macron himself appears at one stage to be talking to an actor playing the fire chief – Annaud rips a pretty swashbuckling adventure from the headlines. A terrifying blaze, flying buttresses about to collapse and molten lead pouring from the roof on to the believers below; and Annaud cheekily intersperses the thrills with a querulous old lady who keeps calling the fire brigade because her kitten has got out on to the roof: France has, as they say, picked the wrong day to quit smoking.
There are some startling scenes, all apparently accurate, showing cathedral officials desperately trying to rescue the most precious possessions: the Crown of Thorns, a vial of Christ’s blood, a fragment of the true cross and a nail from the crucifixion. And no one even murmurs the possibility that these are medieval artefacts. As far as these people are concerned: these are the real thing, and this glassy-eyed belief in their authenticity, and the ecstasy at their deliverance, is somehow more important than issues around the incompetence that caused the fire in the first place: it gives the film a slightly reactionary sheen.
That’s not to say it isn’t perfectly watchable and it gives us in the UK food for thought. How long before the Houses of Parliament go up in flames in exactly the same way?
• Notre Dame on Fire is released on 22 July in cinemas.