On the south-west corner of the facade of Notre Dame cathedral is a horned chimera, peering out at the Left Bank of Paris with an awestruck gawp. The director Jean-Jacques Annaud, 78, was a boy when he picked out the beast for his second ever photograph; he took it with a camera given to him by his mother (the subject of his first photograph). They lived on the outskirts of Paris, and she would bring him to the cathedral every Thursday. “She used to go there to light a candle for a friend who was ill,” he explains. “My parents weren’t believers, but she had that Christian tradition of doing that kind of thing.”
So it was understandably dismaying for Annaud when, decades later, on the evening of 15 April 2019, the place that kindled his directorial eye was transformed into a Dantesque inferno. He was in a family house on the west coast of France as the news of the fire broke; without access to television, he listened on the radio as its spire collapsed and flames licked the towers. His main residence was just a few hundred metres away, near the Pont Neuf.
My young actors were actually afraid – I put them in front of jets of 800°C flameThe cathedral was not the fire brigade’s only worry. “There were violent swirling winds that day,” he says, “and the building was an enormous brazier, a giant barbecue. They thought it was going to collapse. If it fell on the side of Rue du Cloitre, the whole neighbourhood would be gone.”
Three years on, we are emerging from Rue du Cloître, very much intact, on to Notre Dame’s forecourt. The cathedral facade looks chipper but the building is cordoned off and sheathed on its sides by gauzed scaffolding that makes it look like a medieval Pompidou Centre. Annaud excitedly points out spots where he was able to shoot scenes for Notre-Dame on Fire, his new, scrupulously dramatised account of the catastrophe. Just over there, one of the traffic jams that delayed the fire brigade. Here, in front of the Hôpital Hôtel-Dieu, the emergency response tents. A few metres away, the truck where the politicians composed themselves for the media: “The truck of lies, I call it!”
Notre Dame was also the place where a producer confirmed to him the financing for his 1986 medieval detective film The Name of the Rose, which starred Sean Connery. But dwelling on the building’s possible destruction made him realise its wider significance, something “premonitory” that went further than its religious associations: “Lots of people told me that it was symbolic of the west. That the idea that the cathedral could collapse represented the risk that the west was going to collapse.”
His film teases us with the possibility of the building’s destruction: as the Paris fire brigade races to save it, he employs button-pushing 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 about the fire, Annaud quickly had a more pumped-up pitch in mind: “I said to myself: great, we have an international star, very beautiful and very famous. And an exceptional villain: fire. We love fire because it heats us and gives us light, except it can also destroy us. It’s the perfect charismatic villain.”
When it came to stringing together the dramatic structure for the knuckle-whitener he had in mind, Annaud had to invent virtually nothing. The film is based on extensive research that included 162 interviews with firefighters, clergy, medical workers, journalists, policemen 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-stretching is the running gag about Laurent Prades, the cathedral’s custodian of artefacts, who – in thriller parlance – picked the wrong day to attend a gala reception in Versailles. Not only does he endure a blood pressure-spiking race across Paris, in his panic he fails to remember the code to the strongbox holding the crown of thorns. All 100% true, swears Annaud, just like the rest of the film. “I didn’t have to add anything. Because what happened was so astonishing, so surprising, and with innately dramatic qualities.” He switches to English: “I had a bag of golden nuggets.”
While the film pulls those narrative strings, it also feels grounded in the details of spatial accuracy, material properties and firefighting strategies (and is intercut with real-life footage shot by bystanders). As we stroll around the cordon on this June morning, Annaud spews out facts with as much delight as the tour guides around us, who are still in business despite the site being closed until 2024. The difference between a chimera and a gargoyle? Gargoyles serve as drains, too. 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 him a pass.)
Just before our stroll, we settle for a chat on a sun-dappled terrace at the nearby Café du Pont. In front is the spot, as Notre-Dame on Fire shows us, where the first fire engine was halted by a too-narrow gap in roadwork hoardings. The film also serves as exasperated homage to some of the frustrations of Parisian life: the perennial gridlocks and roadworks. Annaud has raised the subject with the city’s mayor, Anne Hidalgo, the only figure to play themselves in the film. “The town hall recognises it has made mistakes,” he says, sipping a café crème. “But people in Paris are angry. There’s a level of tension here that wears you down.”
He is an effusive tour guide, wearing natty isometric-cube braces over a white shirt and white Stan Smiths and with a mop of curly hair the same colour. Notre-Dame on Fire is the latest entry in an intrepid filmography often featuring big-tapestry history (Quest for Fire; The Name of the Rose; Enemy at the Gates) and for which, to continue to create his preferred sweeping romantic vistas, he has taken up with controversial paymasters of late: the Qatari government for 2011’s Black Gold and the Chinese one for 2015’s Wolf Totem. Budgeted at just over €30m (£25.4m), his new film is on the pricey side for a European production, but he says it wasn’t government-mandated in order to help raise funds for the reconstruction. Brigitte Macron has seen and “adores” it, but he doesn’t know if the president has had time to watch it yet.
The money is certainly apparent on the screen, though. Annaud primarily shot at Sens, Amiens and Bourges cathedrals, because of their similarities to Notre Dame; the former was Europe’s first gothic cathedral, which Paris then outdid shortly afterwards. Then, for any scenes involving fire, his team made millimetre-exact reconstructions of various sections in the studio, including the bottom section of the facade as far as the towers, the east portion of the north transept, where the initial wave of firefighters battled to access the eaves, and an eight-column section of the nave.
A waitress passes by holding two pints topped with flaming sparklers. Green screen and fake CGI flames were out of the question for Annaud. “You believe what you’re seeing, because my young actors were actually afraid. They were really hot, so they gave the needed reaction. With green screen, they spend their time imagining instead of acting. But when I put them in front of jets of 800°C flame, and they have to put their helmets on, you really get something else.”
Annaud had real firefighters on hand to supervise his conflagration. Researching the film, he was hugely impressed with the collective spirit, bravery and humility he consistently encountered. It stood out to him in comparison with the individualist milieu of cinema. “We’re running after glory, success and celebrity. Most people in Los Angeles are depressed because they know they’re making terrible films. They earn lots of money doing something they don’t respect. Psychologically, it’s an abomination.”
He has managed to avoid those kinds of soul-destroying compromises in his career, partly because he has retained final cut on his films – a rarity now. Still seemingly full of beans as he nears 80, he is aware that film-making is entering a different era. The pandemic has decimated cinema audiences, which has destabilised the budgeting of new films, and he is not quite certain what is next. In the meantime, Notre Dame still stands as a constant on his skyline. He picks out the gremlin silhouette on the south-west corner. “Now I’ve got it at home,” he says, revealing that its life-size replica was his takeaway souvenir from the shoot. A chimera in the living room: that’s one up even from an Oscar.